THE WAY IT WAS: Confused about culture and purity óMian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The poor and weak, regardless of their faith, have a greater sense of togetherness. A rich man will seek out the rich and not let his son marry the daughter of his poor brother. The rich and the poor of same faith and baradari uphold different cultures. The transcendental definition of culture is factually incorrect

An idle pursuit of culture is a pursuit of the uncultured. The cultured are perpetually engaged ó either through creative practice or collective labour ó in reinventing it to serve or express the needs of the times. Culture is a product of social practice and conduct. It is the sum total of what a society believes and aspires to and what it expresses in words and images.

Culture is not inert. It grows and develops. The social and material needs of people and society impel it forward. A person is a product of an inherited culture and simultaneously the means of its change. People are also a product of the geographical environment in which they live since that determines what they wear, eat and how they build their dwellings.

The Eskimos live in Igloos made of blocks of ice and go about their chores on boats and sledges pulled by dogs. The Arabs live in tents woven of goat and camel hair and go about their business on camels and horses. But an Arab and an Eskimo are both fed on their motherís milk. Both marry, procreate and teach their children to fend for themselves and be useful members of their communities. Both have blood flowing in their veins; experience a range of feelings from love, joy and compassion to envy, hatred, anger and fear. These attributes define their common humanity that we often forget. Cultures cannot be exclusive.

A person, as stated earlier, is not a passive product of culture. He is also a tool by which the culture develops and is often transformed. This definition may not go down well with those who feel threatened by any kind of change. Left to themselves they would try to stop the Earth on its axis ó even turn it back. Some of my countrymen are worried about the dramatic changes that are being ushered in with modern means of information technology. We are being constantly bombarded with images and ideas that make us raise an eyebrow, even blush. I am all for individual freedoms as long as no one steps on my toes. Individual freedom cannot be granted to bruise other peopleís precious sensibilities? Surely not!

At the same time should I not learn also to accept changes that are in the air. In history, anyone who arrogantly or self-righteously stood his ground against change either perished or was laughed out. Time has no patience for anyone. I think it was Picasso who said that if you keep on looking back you are likely to twist your neck. Arenít some of us becoming a pain in the neck?

Recently there has been a debate in Daily Times on culture. Some writers were of the view that benefiting from other cultures can be enriching, while others argued that we should keep our culture pure. I wonder if a pure culture exists anywhere. If Islam, and for that matter Christianity or Budhism, had insisted on the purity of their respective cultures, than Islam would have remained the preserve of the Quraish, Christianity would not have travelled beyond Judea and Budhism outside Ayodhya.

Muslims have made considerable contributions to world culture, in the fields of jurisprudence, science, mathematics, engineering, cartography, philosophy, literature, art and architecture ó to name a few. But not all the great men who excelled in these fields were Arabs. The Moors built the great mosque at Cordova and the Alhamra Palace. Jalaluddin Rumi who penned down the Dewan-e-Shams-e-Tabriz and the Mathnawi was a Persian poet. Abu-Ali ibn Sina, philosopher, physician, and natural scientist of Central Asia, played a considerable role in spreading among the Arabs, and through them in Europe, the philosophical and scientific heritage of the Greeks. Babur the founder of the Mughal dynasty being a descendent of Taimur and Changez Khan was half Turk and half Mongol. How impure can you get! Baburís grandson, Akbar the Great, married Jodha Bai, a Rajput princess and had Jehangir for a son. Jehangir a Turkish-speaking Sunni, in his turn, married Nur Jehan a Persian-speaking Shia widow. Let me not complicate matters any further. Suffice it to say that Jehangirís grandson Aurangzeb had more Rajput than Turkish blood flowing through his veins.

While taking pride in the Taj Mahal, the architectural marvel of the Mughals, letís not overlook that the form of central dome, which rests on petals of an Indian lotus flower, has a striking resemblance with a lotus bud just about to open its fragrant eye. The two smaller copulas flanking the main dome are entirely Rajput. Does that make the Taj impure? Many of the famous artists working in the Mughal atelier were non-Muslims. They were instrumental in synthesising the indigenous with the Central Asian and Persian traditions. Does that make the school impure and any less our own?

The lesson to be drawn from history is that confident and vibrant cultures have no hesitation in borrowing and seeking knowledge and inspiration from foreign sources. Only weak and degenerating cultures insist on being exclusive. None of the great religions was exclusive because then they would have ceased to be universal. The Muslims of the world have an incredible diversity. They speak different tongues; eat different foods and dress differently. They have their separate arts, crafts and architectural traditions. Even their mosques are built and embellished differently, except that they all face Mecca. The mosque in Peking is so different than the Great Mosque at Samarra and the Badshahi Masjid at Lahore.

In certain cultural aspects a non-Muslim can be closer to you than a Muslim. Surely Lahoris would feel more at home in Amritsar and even Delhi, than in Bahrain or in Tehran. If for no other reason than that it is easier to communicate. Can there be a better reason? If you crack a joke at a Sikh brother, he laughs. If you try to share a joke, even at your own expense, the Arab brother doesnít even understand. What is the fun? Should a culture not have a sense of fun? Doesnít the sight of our terrific South Asian mangoes excite us greatly more than the dates, traditionally eaten by us as a ritual at iftar?

Getting back to impurity, I ask, can there be a nation culturally more impure than us? The vast majority of us are recent converts to Islam. The Jats, Gujjars, Raos and Ranas, and the Butts in the Punjab alone are all indigenous people. Most of them are also thriving across the eastern border as Sikhs and Hindus. Some of my friendsí grandparents were Sikhs. Many Muslim Butts have Brahmin ancestors.

The point is, it is not the purity or exclusivity but inclusiveness that makes our culture unique in its diversity. It is always through friendly union that new ideas are born. Cultures that are exclusive and inward-looking, peering at the past for their raison de etre become frigid and perverse. From the historic point of view it cannot be denied that Islam incessantly absorbed what came its way and denied only that which came in a fundamental conflict with its vision. That was the reason it spread at a gallop in parts of the world as far apart as Africa, Europe and Asia.

Perhaps a better manner of looking at culture of a country and people would be not to consider it from the perspective of what people believe but from their social and economic status. All societies are segmented into classes and the world divided into rich and poor countries. This, in spite of their common religion, also applies to Muslim countries. The poor and weak, regardless of their faith, have a greater sense of togetherness. A rich man will seek out the rich and not let his son marry the daughter of his poor brother. The rich and the poor of same faith and baradari uphold different cultures. The transcendental definition of culture is factually incorrect. An integrated culture cannot exist in societies divided into social groups with antagonistic interests.

Pakistan is going through a phase where we need to pause and ask ourselves where are we going. People have the right to go wherever they like but it is best not to proceed backwards. No one should dispute over events that occurred far ago in history. If some issues should have been settled differently there is little that we can do about them now. Why fight about them today? Havenít we enough problems of our own today? Muslims are exploding bombs in mosques; fathers are killing their daughters for honour; brothers marrying their sisters to the Koran, poverty and disease prowl our streets, but some of us are insisting on cultural purity.

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist