Essay: “Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform, The Way Forward” – Conference at Oxford University –11th – 13th June 2010
Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
Dhaka, Tuesday, 7th September 2010
“That is because God was not to change any blessing He bestowed upon a people, unless they change what is in themselves.” (Ko’ran 8:53)
1. Introducing ‘Reformists Muslims’:
During my recent trip to the UK I was invited as an observer to the ‘Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reforms’ Conference at Oxford University. Held between 11th to the 13th of June 2010 - the experience was uplifting and educative and I take pride in sharing my thoughts here.
Before I go on to the nuts and bolts – ‘Reformist Muslims’ as popularly addressed are Monotheist who seek a mandate to reclaim Islam from within, in its ‘God only’ interpretation of the Ko’ran, in its dismissal of divisive Hadith based dogmas and rejection and rendering illegitimate misogynist, spurious Sharia ‘laws’ that have from times immemorial sought to wreck havoc on the Islamic psyche, the root cause of modern xenophobia termed Islamophobia. Yet none of these deeply probing exercises failed to address what is primarily the most important and distressful aspect of Islam in these changed times – the innate identity crisis affecting most of its adherents – i.e. Muslims globally.
To begin, while numbers were limited in individuals and organisations represented in the Conference and a dearth of presence or publicity in the mainstream media, it is nonetheless the only ‘Islamist movement’ today in my estimation, worthy of our respect – more directly, it demands for good reasons that they be heard. What overrode quantity made up in the quality of members comprising of Scholars, Academics, Theologians, Thinkers, Scientist, Mathematicians, Economist, Human Rights Activists, Politicians, and Musicians even stand-up Comedians from all over the world.
To reach consensus and invoke no-holds barred debates primarily focused on the Ko’ran, together with the lofty ideals and spirit of Ijtihad (enquiry, debate, logic, arguments and reason among others) the Conference was open for members of all faiths, no-faith, agnostics, atheists, Humanist and a large presence of reverted (converted) Muslims from Europe and North America. More or less every shades of opinions were permitted their say with remarkable acceptance and tolerance. Exceptions there were a few – which I shall get to later in this piece.
2. Front line soldiers in the War against Demons of Reason:
Some if not all answers were found in the three-day long deliberations, but what struck me as particularly awe inspiring is to meet and befriend little heard of ‘front line soldiers’ – be they scholars, historians or simply generalist like the Raheel Raza the female Imam from Canada who led the Friday prayer to a mixed congregation. These are a new generation of Islamic thinkers and activists who have not rejected their faith per se, yet under considerable peril choose to reject stereotypes and mindsets of their forefathers, together with the legacy of a damning status quo. This again not out of any obligation but by choice and conviction, which brings with it fair share of retribution and inevitable hardship.
In this unrelenting and asymmetrical war against demons of reason who only preach violent and fractious ideals of Bin-Laden-esque Jihad to ignorant and microscopic number of Muslims – which in turn leads on to woes for the estimated billion adherent of the faith globally, the task in hand is certainly overwhelming and fraught with risk. Many of the Reformist have at one time or the other served long jail sentences in their native lands, have being brutally tortured, exiled, attempts made on their lives – and some still have death threats hanging over their heads.
Initially sitting bewildered on unknown sides of the territories tricky fence, I focused and wondered with much apprehension as to the constant damage inflicted on the mind and senses of these exceedingly brilliant human beings, indeed to the entire notion of civility. To think of it - it takes a lot of courage to consider it ‘justified to fight injustice’ – real or perceived is really a separate matter, and a lot more here is at stake when one stands up opposing their own Muslim brethrens and kin, are branded and discriminated as ‘renegades to their faith’, yet admirable is their upfront and unabashed courage to tell everyone with no uncertainty – that what we have learnt and believed lifelong was all dangerously wrong – is un-Islamic and anti-Ko’ranic - is certainly positions bordering on ‘heroic to a fault’.
Yet their faith in the Ko’ran and God only remains undiminished and unwavering – which are the fundamental attributes as to what has given them limited legitimacy and importantly credibility. No longer is the Islamic world willing to be cowed down by fatwas of the fanatics, nor will it ever go unchallenged that as a religion it only hawks hate and violence as also - no longer is the beard or habit wearing Islamic Mullah or the Hijab wearing female counterparts, be considered the only ‘identity’ of Muslims globally. We were also reminded that efforts must be made to come out of the little understood but widely used and abused Western labels such as ‘moderate Islam’ or ‘secularism’, which contradicts the essence of the religion and makes it susceptible to exploitations. Aspects of freedom of speech, which is inscribed in the Ko’ranic text, are to be further propounded – and that in extension does not mean blind acceptance of Western diktats of the same.
To sum up my initial reactions – the question doing an over time on my non-theological mind was; is anybody in the Muslim world really ready to undertake such a huge paradigm shift – and risk isolation? The answer to that I found was - yes, because unknown to us the isolationist mode has by now been rendered obsolete in the quiet acceptance and resistance that characterize these bold women and men, who seek to make a difference and are resolute in their reaffirmation – the foundation of their faith in God only and the Ko’ran.
3. ‘Us versus them’ – When the enemy is within and the enemy is us:
On the flips side ‘Demons’ (for lack of a ‘prettier’ word!) within the faith have historically had a way with words – aspects of ‘evilisation’ begin as their natural attribute, for essentially these are twisted, warped and convoluted words, half-truth and lies which spoken and repeated over and over again attains the semblance of truth. Goebbel’s legacy just isn’t in the name of a man – he was Holocaust personified and his nightmarish apparition survives till date, the guise he wore then was the Swastika – it is not just the same today, more sinister and acrimonious, it has acquired the status of a chameleon that can spring up to catch us unaware just about anywhere without our knowing. Symbolism aside - neither the mere display of Crescent and Star – is to be perceived ‘Islamic’ under any token or yardstick of judgement – not any more.
I was reminded of the blatant apostasy perpetrated by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hossain in hurriedly scribbling verses from the Ko’ran on to the national flag as a ‘deterrent’ for Muslims soldiers from other nations joining the coalition ahead of the US led invasion. Sadly that move did not ensure his survival, nor does an identical verse emblazoned on the Saudi Arabian flag today in anyway helps the so-called ‘Kingdom’ free itself from American boots under which it has voluntarily gone under and have remained willing captives for decades.
Evidently it is for no other reason, but to re-emphasise and perpetuate the myopic, arrogant and exploitative Saudi version of Wahabi and Shariati Islam which served feudal interest as the ‘real and only thing’ – that derails all possibilities of a great revival of the religion that is now condemned and subject to mockery of the worst kind. I wondered how for the actions, insensitivity and ineptitude of an infinitely microscopic minority that constitutes the Arab Muslims in the past and present, (and possibly the foreseeable future) the majority adherents of the faith globally have to suffer and face persecution? For all the wealth of the Arab world, their intellectual poverty and no efforts at taking in reins of their own destiny, is the one singular reason that Muslims stand divided. Horrifying also is a realization is all monotheist Prophets were born in that geographical location of the globe – yet peace has eluded it for centuries.
The Reformist in a round about way – re-established that God simply cannot intercede/intervene in the affairs of man – and merely parroting verses/text from the holy book alone will not help lift Muslims out of the plight they are in today. With the doors of Ijtihad shut down for centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammed following internecine strife within the Wahabi sect in Arabia – the Islamic culture ruefully passed on later as the appropriate mantle for other Muslim/Islamic countries to replicate is ultimately the bane of the state Islam is, in present times. Tragically the zero-centric Bedouin Islam of the deserts thanks to ignorance of Muslims worldwide is now considered ‘mainstream’ in almost all countries and cultures, which has resulted in a situation whereby the religion appears more in tune to pre-Islamic Aiyyam-e-Zahliya period of infamy.
Questioning or arguments based on the Ko’ran have been succinctly outlawed, with Hadith and Sunna interpretations literally making it appears as if the infallible Ko’ran is incomplete, and the comparison/association of the Prophet Muhammad’s name a standard and ritualistic practice which inherently is deification, prohibited under all norms and standards of Islam is conveniently overlooked. Making it worse, these degenerative outdated ideas cannot be challenged on the pain of death – even though during the times of the Prophet, no one was executed for alleged apostasy or heresy. To re-emphasise, in reality what has happened for over 1500 years is the Arab notion of monarchist driven beneficiary and patronizing culture of the desert was then as even today lapped in blindly by the majority as ‘Islamic’ – which frustrates and defeats Islam’s egalitarian plurality, of ‘assimilation’ and acculturation – the cornerstone of its great appeal and outreach globally. The attempts to throttle voices from within the faith continue and people such as the Reformist Muslims are labeled ‘heretics and apostates’.
Post the Prophet Muhammad’s times, Islam’s painful survival in the reality that is today is best viewed in the great stride it has made in imbibing and enriching cultures it has come across – not by conflicts, coercion, and not always by threats or by the language of the sword. Understanding and adapting resolutely to cultures and it many shock and awe are the fundamental aspect that makes Islam unique. To even contemplate that a religion which enlightened millions and spread worldwide to be embraced by billions, given all its positive aspects – is today condemned to the back seat of progress is really a rude and hard shock to swallow.
While Muslims have for long have been plagued with a persecution mentality and have pointed fingers at others faiths for the sorry state they are in – the Reformist intent is to remind every one, that while doing so three fingers are pointed right back at us. The corrections therefore must come from within – not without. There can hardly be an appetite to shift blames and scuttle facts if Islam were to restore a semblance of its lost pride. The crucial factor now is to nurse it back to health.
Indeed what can help in the process is the constant effort at delving into the exoteric and esoteric meaning of the verses/text – together with its hidden depths is what in essence makes the Ko’ran and its adherents the Muslims a potent force. If Ko’ran is a book that will survive until eternity, it simply cannot be interpreted as was in the times of the Prophet/s, rather there are lot of qualitative verses/text which when juxtaposed to current times should not detract Muslims in finding solutions and putting them on course – to what can be zeroed in as ‘reality-check’.
It is only in mans adaptability to the nuances of the verses deserting and abandoning brain washed century old prejudices, fallacies, forgeries, hearsays, superstitions and shifting polarisations aimed at addressing or serving selfish expediencies, exploitative political and business interest of the past, of those that embraced the faith at the time of the Prophet some 1500 years ago and have been at it since – have to be deconstructed and in some cases forcefully demolished if Islam is to regain sanity from the morass that it has been pitted into.
Many of the spurious Hadith and man made Sunna traditions meant only to set Islam in medieval lights have caused irrecoverable damage and have to be trashed with solid, justifiable arguments, with historical studies based not on emotions or sentiments, but on logical, scientific parameters and strata of judgement – was the one overriding message that emanated out of the conference.
4. The Millstones and Milestones:
Above being the fundamental areas and course and scope of debates in the Conference, the proceeding however commenced on a very sour note.
Bottom lime - it was poorly organized – and unforgivable is the time wasted – a delay of 3 plus hours on the first day itself, with nobody having an inkling as to who was in charge, and when does the frustratingly slow ball gets rolling. When it finally did, simple and reasonable queries about the day’s plans by distinguished participants were answered with rudeness bordering on hostility by some organizers: voices were raised, tempers flared, patience wore thin. To imagine that women and men who prescribe to a faith – where discipline, peace and timings for Salat (prayers) are scrupulously adhered to – the Conference as such lacked the ‘religious’ or even the ‘missionary zeal’ that was so much desired.
The following day things were just the same – way too many speakers and topics, lot of ad-hocism with some over-shooting their time limits – and by evening there was always a rush-rush effort to make up for lost time, an exercise that caused considerable stress to everybody. Despite having the finest Halls and Auditoriums in Oxford University, poor internal lighting despite repeated reminders never improved, and had participants leaving the hall to relieve pressure from their precious eyes.
The sincere efforts by participants to move forward – all too often got bogged down with details and trivia’s about interpretation of the verses, with some insisting that the Hadith in totality simply cannot be trashed, as that would raise worrying specters of some ‘authentic’ ones, not based on hearsay or fallacies, but those that facilitates and serves Reformists agenda as the essence of the Ko’ran where ‘God only’ interpretations are available risk being scuttled as well. The issue remained unresolved.
Overall the Conference did not make much headway for evidently resource materials on topics to be covered as such were not made available in advance, even to the keynote speakers. What resulted was unnecessary too and fro on vital subjects, when in reality most of the issues have been resolved, addressed and dealt with in the many books that were available and on sale in the venue.
In fact as a layman, I learnt more about the Reformist Agenda by subsequently reading several books, namely a compilation of brilliant essays and articles by contemporary thinkers of Islam in the book “Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform” as also “The Natural Republic – Reclaiming Islam from Within” by the Monotheist Group. Other than that Edip Yuksel’s “Peace Makers Guide to War Mongers” is a serious eye-opener, and my priceless pick “Quran – A Reformist Translation” by Edip Yuksel, Layth Saleh al-Shaiban and Martha-Schulte-Nafeh.
What I found of distressfully disappointing is the real paucity among the Reformist of speakers or activists from South Asia that forms the bulk of the Muslim demography. The deepest impressions conveyed not only to me, but almost everybody in the Conference were speakers such as Asghar Ali Engineer, the sole representative from India annd Hasan Mahmud – originally from Bangladesh, but now a Canadian citizen. Their articulation and expressions were focused on specifics and even during open sessions, they conducted themselves with patience, clarity and dignity. Both were obviously speaking from a position of strength, with their homework’s carefully done, given that in their own countries fanatics have hounded them and their composure perfectly indicated, they had a well-crafted and long-term strategy under their belts on how to fight and stave off demons. Perhaps they were also aware that now is not a time to unleash their weapons!
Hasan Mahmud from Canada
The star performer in the Conference was Edip Yuksel, a Turkish scholar now living in the US, whose initiation to Islam was as an
The other important participant was Arnold Yasin Mol from the Netherlands, who reverted to Islam from Catholicism and studied Arabic, which gives him a thorough understanding of the Ko’ranic text and jurisprudence and therefore a definite edge. Yet I could not help notice his over exuberance during the course of the three-day deliberations and even as Moderator, he took more time than the speakers themselves, a sore point that was repeatedly pointed out to him, without much headway. While Arnold has political ambitions with the Dutch Muslim Party (and I will not be surprised if he becomes the Prime Minister of Netherlands!), unfortunately his domineering ‘my way or the highway’ demeanor will not help the Reformist in the long run. Long winding statements do not only bore an audience, it also creates confusions and the prudent and articulate Arnold, should take a crash-course and learn to reinvent the fine art of creating space for others – which in turn – reinterprets itself as respect for fellow beings – a specific lesson from the Ko’ran.
Understandably the debates and discussions therefore revolved around the old Arab myopic version of Islam and in doing so, the organizers I felt did itself a disservice – ‘the way forward’ as such never happened. What it did was to rewind and go back to times in history when the Arab dominated version of Islam was at its height. Harping back on the past – when Islamic history was mired with confusions, controversies and inconsistencies, made even worse by the spurious Hadith and Sunna traditions, I was wont to believe that much would be lost in the days ahead – if we do not relate Islam and Ko’ran to ‘now’. I hope in all sincerity that I was not wrong.
Much as various interpretations of Islam were drawn in – it was saddening to note that there appeared to be no interest to discuss the various textual interpretations of the Ko’ran by the Sufi’s (Ilm- e-Tusawwuf) and never for once did the name of a towering Islamic personality such as Jalal – al- Din Rumi (1207-1273) ever come up? The ignorance of the Sufi’s contribution to Islam, especially its robust presence in the cultures spreading from Persian civilizations to South Asian countries straddling India, Pakistan and up to Bangladesh – and its known projection of a tolerant strain of Islam, revealed a lack of sophistication and awareness of philosophies, cultures and the Marefati traditions as such.
Resultantly, what I felt all through was the lackadaisical and animated debates which wore down everyone, was totally unnecessary as the Sufi’s in South Asia had already and most befittingly confronted and answered those ‘deep and probing’ questions troubling the Islamic world, and that too centuries ago! The discussions/debates on the sphere of Islam was not ‘global’ at all but rather ‘localized’ to the Middle East, Europe and North America (from where the majority of participants had come from), which for all practical purpose appeared to me no more than defending and or debating the Arab ‘supremacist’ genre – that has absolutely no relevance to global Islam. This is an area that the Reformist must have a serious re-think and look at with deep commitment – and an education in that respect is certainly overdue.
With the varied degree of Islamophobia we witness globally, the challenge now rest on how the Reformist agenda is to be viewed in countries that matter most – namely in Europe and North America. From what I could gather, the Reformist ideals while certainly in conformity with changing realities stands a fair chance of meeting overall moral acceptance of Muslims worldwide – yet on a generalized perspective what they have on offer is nothing more than adding decibels to the noise of – ‘the real version of Islam’ – which has a ready a discernible audience specially among those thriving to grasp the intricacies of the faith – and those that are reverting to the religion in droves. The troubling question really is - can the consistency of the movement be retained?
Other that the many websites (a list of Reformist websites is added in the footnote) it appears as of now that the movement is restricted only to the Internet and the various forums run and managed by the group where passionate, provocative and sometimes one-upmanship points of views which negate consensus appears to be in vogue. Much of the gains of the Conference were lost to my chagrin in the bickering in forum emails immediately thereafter. As there is hardly any noticeable real-world presence of the Reformists either in the mainstream media or in its relationship with Government/s, a great worry lurks: whether the three day exercise was a Western intelligence ploy at understanding and studying liberal and progressive Muslim minds and gathering valuable data to frustrate future aspirations? A closed group such as the Reformists with no intent to go public beyond limited spheres to advocate its known position is also vulnerable to close monitoring. The danger really is whether the fanatics are doing the same and profiling individuals without their knowledge.
While a huge spectacle and media tamasha was made out of the female Imam from Canada leading a mixed congregation for the first time in the UK, regrettably there were no pre or post media briefings, kits available nor any efforts expended to ensure that the media stayed on and projected the outcomes of the daily deliberations in the Conference. In fact if I am not wrong, Arnold Yasin Mol’s wife did the only video coverage of all three days with a hand held semi professional camera! Mainstream newspapers had nothing to write about and in parts, I suspect the Reformist possibly did not want it.
That being the case, much more is desired out of the Reformist – as else it may in time be looked at by posterity as efforts by some sincere Muslim’s to come up with a de-fanged, intellectual (not philosophical), non-political pacifist version of Islam which would certainly be music to Western ears – for as long as the last stain is heard!
© Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
Uttara, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Tuesday, 7th September 2010
Ongoing Research: Aroj Ali Matubbar, aBRAHAM, iSHMAEL - and 'Zabah' as opposed to 'Korbani' - Exchange with Manobota
Thank you very much for sharing the link. It has refreshed my old readings of Aroj Ali Matubbar's works which I first stumbled upon quite by accident in 1990. Indeed he was the most brilliant 19th Century folk philosophers that Bangladesh was blessed with. Interestingly even somebody as ‘secular’ as Bangabandu had his works proscribed, for it was feared that they may contribute to social disorder in the newly independent nation.
First of all please forgive my imprudence to point out that there is no such word as ‘sUFISM’. In the Islamic tenet it is Ilm e Tussawuf – which is intrinsic and complementary with Ilm-e-Sharia. We cannot acknowledge one without a thorough and unbiased understanding of the other – as that would be a gross error of judgment.
Ultimately we will not be judged for our time in life (or lifetime) by whether we were good or bad, right or wrong, ‘moral or immoral’ – not even whether we were just or unjust. If at all, we will only be judged for our INTENTIONS. One reason I have stayed clear away from from the forum you mention since 2004 is because I find many who write there have 'intentions' that are neither pure nor pristine. I trust you get the drift!
I beg to differ on the word ‘Korbani’ – for in the kORANic text the words is ‘zabah’. With that it is not meant ‘slaughter’ – but to violently shed off what is inherent in creating a sOUL which is free from any form of bias, hatred, evil thoughts – and importantly murder of any lifeforms.
To exemplify – Fakir Lalon sHAIJi mentions in the song ‘pAAP pUNYER kotha’ (Of sINS and sALVATION)
“ Shukor goru duti poshu khaitey boleychey Jesu
Eat swines and cows, thus said Jesus
Tobey keno Muslim Hindu Pichey te hotai
Why do the mUSLIM and hINDU shun it aside”
By that is meant as I have learnt from my long association with the sHADHUs and fAKIRs– there are no clear or specific directive/s in any religious text whether they be Shonaton, Buddhist, Abrahamic, Judaic, Christianity or Islam – that an animal or life form has to be slaughtered just to ‘appease’ gOD and nowhere does it say it is a rite that is 'obligatory on all wealthy Muslims to perform each year'.
I have challenged several reputed Ulema’s and Alems (Islamic theologians) on e-forums to cite me one verse that disputes my contentions. Their deafening silence on the issue, confirms that I was right - because there is no such thing in the text.
Also if we are to believe the kORANic injunction ‘follow the Messengers’ – then the statement of jESUS would be in conflict with the kORAN and indeed mUHAMMAD’s stated position as in the kORAN – making him appear a hypocrite. Pointedly, how could mUHAMMAD have said such a thing if he was not following messengers from pre-aBRAHAMIC times – and how could he expect mankind to follow him – if he was not following his immediate predecessor i.e jESUS -in the monotheistic faith?
These are questions that have no answers – because nowhere did Muhammad say ‘follow Hadith’ – if at all true, as some Hadith say, he apparently said ‘follow the kORAN if you wish to know me or aLLAH’. In all probability – he said nothing!
If I may be impertinent, as far as the kORAN is concerned aBRAHAM's attempted 'sacrifice ' (slaughter) of his son – was an ‘act of faith’ – and iSHMAEL being replaced by a lamb – I believe was NOT an 'act of gOD' for the Muslim gOD aLLAH simply cannot physically intervene in acts of mAN. If he did so, that would be going against the basic belief and tenet in aLLAH as in the kORAN i.e. he is sexless, formless, sightless etc, etc – indeed anything that is referred to him resembling humans or human actions – is ‘shirek’ – sacrilege/digression.
So it is very likely that a human shocked at the sight of what aBRAHAM was attempting (and there are no confirmations that the act occurred in public) – quickly replaced iSHMAEL with a lamb – which the blindfolded aBRAHAM , ‘blinded’ also by his love of gOD - could have well misconstrued as ‘divine intervention’.
For 'blind followers' of Islam, what is not known is their religion permits no space for superstitions and gOD intervening physically in the affairs of mAN. However that anonymous human who saved iSHMAEL MUST be credited for his bold actions - else human slaughter and cannibalism is what we would have certainly inherited had aBRAHAM succeeded. Possibly gOD ‘accepted’ that one innocent lamb and was ‘appeased’ – that ensured the denial of a slaughter of the ‘flock’ – with humans not being exempt.
The only thing gODly about humans is the sOUL, or rOOHu – which is 'energy' and science, confirms that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If we are to believe in the lofty principals of Ashraful Maklukat – or humans are the best of gODs ‘creation’ - then I trust the only thing 'holy’ about us is our sOUL. sOUL again is insight and we can only do justice in our times in life – if we constantly keep nourishing and turn our 'insight into foresight'. A sOUL tainted with filth will lose its capacity to reason and can conceivably never find ‘salvation’ – whatever that word means!
Ultimately our belief is limited to our faculty of knowledge and ‘intelligence’. But there is also such a word called ‘Extelligence’ i.e. mA’AREFOT or mA'ARIFA (previously termed gnosis) – is essentially knowledge beyond the ordinary and mundane: let us call it supra-mundane. mA’AREFOT in Bangladesh is the practice of Extelligence in its purest form.
The presence of unsung philosophers and sAGES like fAKIR Lalon sHAH - to Aroj Ali Matubbor in our heritage reconfirms my long held conviction that the toiling mass of Bangladesh are 'genetically' mA’AREFOTi – and thus we openly and naturally resist the Salafist/Wahabist – onslaught, incursion and misinterpretation of Islam which regrettably is considered ‘mainstream Islam’ in Bangladesh.
On the issue of gOD asking mOSES to ‘sacrifice’ his eyes, I find a befitting song from fAKIR Lalon sHAH to explain where Aroj Ali Matubbor possibly missed:
" Jonmo ondho mor noyon,
I was born blind
tumi gURU, tumi bOUDDHO tumi shocheton
yOU are the bUDDHA, you are the gURU of my conscience
fAKIR Lalon oti binoi korey koi,
fAKIR Lalon pleads with all humility
hey probhu, gyaan onjoli dau mor noyoney
O my lORD bless me with thine 'eyes of knowledge'”
Bottom line. We can have our sight yet be sightless or vice versa.
To end – my final equation of ‘Korbani’ or ‘Zabah’ however is interpreted in Lord bUDDHAs nIRVANA exclamation “it has left me, it has left me”.
He never ‘attained’ anything called nIRVANA – indeed what happened was he worked and disposed of all worldly binds that tied him down to being a 'mere human'. Once that done – he was prepared for ‘pari-nIRVANA’ or 'ultimate nIRVANA' - death as we call it.
Little did it matter that he was poisoned and allowed the poison to consume him for weeks – till it (the poison) consumed itself and left his body free to embrace Tirodhaan - departure.
jOI gURU /
(C) Maqsoodul haque - Mac Ongoing Research - 11th April 2010
Pradipta Bhattacharya (Tampa Bay, FL) wroteon August 11, 2009
One thought is that Sahajia Maat (Maat as in Doctrine) originally came from Buddhism. Its a known fact that around 10th Century AD in Bengal - Buddhism really got bastardized (please no value judgement on my selection of the word) and took the path of Hinajaana - Lower Trajectory. There the practitioners mixed Buddhist philosophy with Hindu Shakto practices. The out come was Tantricism and similar religious abominations.
If we are to look at the buDDHIST relics in Paharpur, Mahastangarh and elsewhere in Bangladesh, this part of Bengal was a thriving bUDDHIST center of knowledge - and most of the ancient site were Universities. It appears that Bangladesh was the Center of the bUDDHIST world and much importance was attached to its networking with Bihar India and rest of South and South East Asia.
Quite possibly two things happened after the genocide.
1. The secretive mONKs - some were slaughtered, others fled - and if we are to take the instance of the the earliest "Bangala" script - it is gathered that fleeing mONKS decamped with them , and some were later discovered in an ancient bUDDHIST Monastery in Nepal.
2. What then happened to the resident bUDDHIST - who possibly wore the "Chibor" (saffron-ochre robe) and "Mundu" (shaven head) - but were not mONKs and had not degenerated?
Some legends suggest that they fled to the impassable jungles and reversed their roles. Off went the Chibor and they grew their hair and beards. As an additional disguise they wore a white shroud - denoting that they were already dead and instead of remaining consciously silent about gOD - they started 'singing' the praise of the one gOD.
The simplistic "Ektaar" used by bAULs whose origins are thought to be in modern Turkmenistan denotes an affiliation and or introduction to a sophisticated culture - and it surely is way before the advent of Islam or the ‘Sufi's’.
While I have no evidence to back these claims - the ‘truth’ may well be between 1 and 2, but my instinct tells me - this could be the possible origins of the bAULs.
Make no mistake – bAULIANA is no religion and its practitioners are not ‘religious’ , but ‘spiritual beings’.
Babuji Bose wrote on August 6, 2009
From my limited understanding and based on a visit to Keduli (near Shantiniketan), the annual ilgrimage West Bengal Bauls make to birthplace of patron-sant Joydev ... Bauls are poet-singer akirs, who have renounced the world and material possessions ... in West Bengal side they would generally follow Vaishnavite traditions, songs emphasizing Krishna ... on Bangladesh, side, the patron saint is Lalon fakir, and reaching to ecstasy/union with a more abstract divine entity ... m not sure whether boatmen (bhatiyali) songs of Bangladesh are Baul origin-ed, but have mesmerizing lyrics on thes same theme ... but more from the experts.To add an observation, and though it may sound contrarian, it is something, which will come up in honest debate ... is the issue of the validation of the religious ecstasy experience ... whether Sufi or Baul ... sure it appeals, it stirs emotions, evokes sublime thoughts and feelings ... but in a technical sense, is it valid ?! ... more valid, than say any other out-of-normal body experience, say hypnosis, or hallucinatory ... can the age-old subject-object dichotomy be obliterated in a sublime ecstasy experience ? ... is union, or even vision of God, technically possible ? ... can we crash through the wall to reach the 'unknowable" ??
It would be unfair to delineate bAUls on geographical lines, cause if we are to look at the times of Fakir Lalon Shah, Kushtia was in Nadiya district of West Bengal - the hub of the spiritual renaissance with Joydeb and many others shining their 'light' or lamp.
I have tried to gather more information on the origins of the bAULs but frankly think its an exercise in futility for most that have been written and/or documented are based on myths and half truths. Not worth my time really....
The other notion that the bAUL philosophy is unique to Bengal is also a trivialization. bAULs couldn't have simply dropped off from 'hEAVEN' and in my continuous research I am able to go back to pre-Abrahamic periods - even up to the time of Hermes the great in Egypt.
What I find very interesting are things that Joydeb, Lalon etc said, wrote or preached, to even things the modern day fAKIRs are saying - is nothing new in the realms of 'spirituality'. Its just that most of these later day sAINTs became saint because they could unlock the 'mysteries of nature' and have access to 'keys of all tEMPLEs'.
The bAULS believe that a BIGGER LAMP will always light SMALLER LAMPS and this will continue apparently till eternity. Explains perhaps like Lalon most of the bAULs are called sHAH - or among other 'regal lamps'.
Its a popular misconception that bAULs renounce the world. Far from it there are very many category of bAULs and the ones I know all have families and many have children. There are Grihi, Krishi, Charen and various others - who have to look for a livelihood as part of their belief system.
Exception perhaps are the sADHUs who literally sing and beg for an existence and live of largesse of various sHRINEs and aKHRAAZ...what is amazing is many of them also have 'families' of sort...sHEBA dASHIs - female companions - and in some cases more than one.
How they manage not to have children is a story for another day :)
jOI gURU /
(C) Ongoing Research Dhaka, 9th August 2010
“The Koran possesses an external appearance and a hidden depth, an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning. This esoteric meaning in turn conceals an esoteric meaning (this depth possesses a depth, after the image of the celestial Spheres which are enclosed within each other). So it goes on for seven esoteric meanings (seven depths of hidden depth). ” Henry Corbin [1903-1978]
Muhammad was a Prophet – and Baul’s do not dispute that he was the last one – however he was also a Man and unlike other Prophets the only 'miracle' he had was, that his limits were as limited as any Man in their search for truth. Where Muhammad succeeded is to unlock the mysteries of the world came in the form of the words of the kO’RAN which is the faithfully encrypted seed truth as revealed to him by the angel Gabriel. Contrary to popular misconception: Islam, Muslim and the words of the kO'RAN are three separate matters. The confusion starts when we mix them up.
The kO’RAN is the only book known to mankind that can be memorized and ‘commands believers’ to use their own intellect to interpret its words, sentences, text and letters. Even during the times of Prophet Muhammad, traditions say men and women would not only write it during the twenty three years it took for the revelation to meet its conclusion – hundreds would memorize them, and by the time the Prophet passed away, thousands knew it ‘by heart’.
The book as we read in the form it is today, was compiled (not edited) about twenty years following the death of the Prophet Muhammad under the direction of Caliph Uthman, and sequence followed, whereby the largest of verses start at the beginning and the smallest were placed at the end, without disengaging or disrupting the original revelation at any point.
kO’RAN is a ‘Book of Knowledge for believers and the knowledgeable’ and aL-kO’RAN translated from Arabic closely means ‘The Recitation’ i.e. as there are words, there is also rhythm, meter, music, quantize, and even mind boggling mathematics – including Atomic Calculations. At its earliest, it was wisdom passed on from the lips to ears and later written – meaning hearing, seeing and reading – as also an additional back up, memorizing.
Contrary to popular misconceptions the kO’RAN is NOT the ‘last word of gOD’ – it is indeed the last time gOD has ‘spoken’ to Mankind and a book that is to remain relevant for all times in infinity to come. It had to be thus encapsulated in more ways than what mere ‘human minds’ in our times can interpret.
There is NO 'fundamentalism' in Islam other than the words of the kO’RAN which when read, practiced and inculcated in its essence should set humanity free and not entrap it into Man made dogmas and/or dictates of either self serving Mullahs or modern Western diktats of who/what constitutes a good or bad Muslim. It is the only religion that stresses on a direct communion with the Maker – the All In All – or ‘aLLAH’. Each Man is to himself and through practice and perseverance it can be achieved.
In Fakir Lalon Shah it now appears he had an almost 18th century ‘multi-media’ introspection of the kO’RAN. He could not only quote from verses, he could set them into music, and then proceed to look at each and every alphabet or letter and locate its implied meaning in its seven hidden ‘exoteric and esoteric depth’ – much as a Calligraphist could visualize an art work, or various ‘forms’ in them.
He therefore connoted and exemplified the interpretations of ‘dIL- kO’RAN’ – or kO’RAN more than a book of words i.e. one that would live in the Soul of Man – meaning the kO’RAN, gOD and/or aLLAH is central to human existence, giving further credence to the Baul belief:
Whatever is on Earth – is also in the Universe
The word Bhrom, Brahma etc here are derivatives of the word Abraham, meaning ‘father of many nations’ also considered meaning ‘high father’, originating from the Aramaic words ‘Aba Rama’ which does not conflict or contradict the basic Monotheistic belief of one omnipotent and omniscient ‘God’.
Several documented Shizra Nama (Sufi Spiritual Lineage Flow Chart) in Bengal tracks back Lalon and places him in categories of wisdom and intellect to the earliest ascetic and hermetic disciples of Prophet Muhammad. Aside his great mastery with Arabic words and passages from the Koran as appears in his songs, have the left Sufi order in Bengal to speculate that he was a ‘Saint’. His title ‘Fakir’ because it is an Arabic word apparently lends credence to stake such a ‘claim’.
On the other hand his vast, almost limitless knowledge on the Vedas, Upanishads, Manusmriti, Srimad Bhagvatam, Bhagwad Geeta, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and other Shonaton scripts as also mellifluously explaining the tryst between Radha and Krishna among others – somehow convinces the Shonaton that he was a 17th century Avatar!
© Ongoing Documentation: Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
Updated 15th May 2009
We have concluded earlier that both were devout members of the Muslim faith, and lived at a time, when religious prejudices were at its prime, as much as the spillover from the era gone by, bedevils our existence in this new Millennium - entrapping us into a mental slavery of a kind, where it is really left to us and no ‘gOD’ to free ourselves, and best echoed in Bob Marley’s [1945-1981] ‘Emancipation Song’:
None but ourselves can free our mind”
Imagine Lalon at this juncture: a pre or post-teen, afflicted by a disease which left him blind in one eye, (Shonaton traditions speaks of his face being ‘partially charred’, apparently the first attempt at euthanasia on Lalon was an aborted cremation) traumatized by the ordeal of his biological parents abandonment, in a state of perpetual amnesia, his body in great pain from the sores of smallpox, his enlightened soul weakened, in very frail health with possibility of recovery very slim or slow and a tortuous process.
He had also to be treated in utmost secrecy, meaning for as much as a year or more, the only people who he possibly saw and/or communicated were Matijaan and Malam? Add with that, the financial poverty of his adoptive parents. Everything had a cost implication then in penury stricken rural Bengal – as much as it does today. To feed an extra mouth, compounded with someone who is in throes of death with an ailment which leads to societal ostracization simply cannot be considered an insignificant matter.
Let’s take it from here:
Assuming that the truth about Lalon’s origin is in-between the two extreme claims i.e. a Kayashto Shonaton at birth, now at the mercy, care and tutelage of Muslims – our endeavor, quest and focus of enquiry should take us no more then his adoptive parents.
The appearance or ‘Abirbhab’ of Lalon begins with a fresh slate. His past although never known, was neither relevant nor of any importance. The new ‘pen’ to write Lalon’s life indeed began with Matijaan and Malam.
The Couple – who were they?
It is acknowledged irrefutably that the couple was spiritually inclined and whilst fAKIRANi mATIJAAN mAA (Fakirani, Queen of Fakirs, Female Fakir) was from the ascetic Fakiri Dervish order, she evidently sported natty dread locks – and had a secondary name – Jataani Matijaan Fakirani Maa – or dread locked mother.
Maulana Malam Shah as his name would suggest, was an Islamic prayer leader and a Hafez e Koran or someone who has consigned the kO'RAN into memory. Also he was a herbalist or Hakim and treated people which even to this day is a very common phenomenon in Bangladesh. Aside, we find no instance in the Bengali language of anybody being named ‘Malam’ – which translated would mean ‘ointment’?
To sum up:
Mother – Matijaan a.k.a. Jataani Maa - supremely endowed in the intricacies, practice and rooted discipline of the secretive, ascetic and esoteric Fakiri order inculcated in Ilm-e Tusawwuf and definitely knowledgeable in the four ‘stations’ of ‘spiritual’ Islam, Shariat, Tariqat, Haqiqat and Ma’arefot.
Father - Maulana Malam Shah, knowledgeable in Islam and with its script the kO'RAN fully memorized - a prayer leader and herbalist, and a Fakir himself i.e. a cumulative combination of wisdom from both Ilm-e-Shariat at its base and Ilm-e Tusawwuf (commonly Sufism) at its farthest.
Whose contribution to Lalon’s spirituality was more 'significant' is practically impossible to define – but we hope to guide readers to several possible fix as we move on.
Lalon after his Discovery and Rescue:
Lalon had the rare opportunity not only to be in care, custody and personal contact with an academic versed in the written text of Koran and its traditions The Hadith, he had the scope with both his adoptive parents, to immerse himself in the exoteric and esoteric disciplines of a Fakiri and Ma’arefoti practitioners, considered the highest level of ‘enlightenment’ in ‘spiritual’ Islam. Together with Malam's considerable skills as a herbalist - Lalon had the rare opportunity to be nursed back to both physical and spiritual health to overcome the after effects and psychological devastation of smallpox.
The soundscape that Lalon was exposed to for all practical purpose would include Malam’s daily recitation from the kO'RAN and its is quite possible that he also heard his father teach the script to students in an adjoining room, or repeated over and over again in a Mosque close by. A prayer leader never lives too far away from a Mosque. It is impractical.
Some bAUL traditions claim that Lalon was Hafez E kO'RAN ‘by birth’ – but there can simply be no truth to this. The strongest likelihood: it takes just about anybody regardless of faith and/or ‘religion’ to memorize the kO'RAN in two years of rigor at a Hefz (memorizing syllabus) school, with variations in Islamic history suggesting that children as young as four years of age have become Hafez – and one Ibne Shihab Al Zuhri in 742 Hejira, apparently memorized the nearly 300,000 word book before he reached the age of seven in staggering eight days!
Thus in the case of Lalon it is entirely possible that he memorized the kO'RAN - or parts of it - during the times he was convalescing, and while he made no claims to the same – even without ‘claiming’ the title, it is possible that he may have been a Hafez as many of his later day Bahas with the Muslim clergies would exemplify.
There are mentions of Lalon not only quoting verses from the kO'RAN in random, but also selectively as well as flawlessly reciting longer strains, to supplement his argument in challenging the misconstrued beliefs of the time.
These are traits and talents only a Hafez can display, and Lalon may not have only consigned the kO'RAN to memory – he took extra pain to explain them in context of his times, with interpretations that a lot people then, as even today are unwilling to accept. That is where the Fakiri traits and excellence in the Ma’arefoti discourse regime in his upbringing are reestablished solidly.
There was simply nothing new in what Lalon was saying. If there were any ‘miracles’ associated in his words and actions, it was only the continuation of the earliest messages of wisdom known to mankind. It was time for him to fine-tune what he had learnt and pass it on. The messages of the great pROPHETs of our times, to the next in providential line – The pOETs.
We are left to draw our conclusion, that fate had intervened and landed Lalon an infallible opportunity to broaden his horizon and thus place him in a unique position to conjoin humanity not only in Bengal, but all mANKIND.
© Ongoing Documentation: Maqsoodul Haque - Mac, 1st April 2, 2009
In Lalon the Man, there is evidence of kindred hope in the horizon. To let this opportunity pass us by with supremacist ideals, fractious, fragile and divisive ‘religious beliefs and sentiments’, would be sentencing ourselves to death of reason – a moral crime worse then treason, yet ironically researchers over 200 years have locked horn over claims and counter claims on Lalon by both Hindus (Shonaton hereafter) and Muslims being adherents to their respective faith and/or religion.
Where they failed as much as later day enthusiast and researchers: Lalon was an Agnostic Sage, who reaffirmed faith by remaining firmly ingrained to Monotheism – or belief in one gOD – with its origins rooted from the times of Abraham – the founding father of monotheistic faith, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Thus the initial perfidious enquiries by the curious about Lalon met with stoic resistance from the Sage himself when he oft repeated his song – which later went on to become a Baul anthem:
Shob lokey koi Lalon ki jaat shongsharey
People are curious about the caste of Lalon
Fakir Lalon e koi jaater ki roop,
Fakir Lalon says, the face of caste
Ami dekhlam na dui nojorey
Oh…I have not seen with thine two eyes
Lalon’s snycretic ‘fusion faith’ if we may elaborate - revolves around belief and disbelief, existence and non-existence of the ‘Supreme Being’ being delicately balanced on rationale, logics, enquiry and commitment.
Simply put agnosticism is often implied as ‘acceptance of the Unity of God’ but a rejection of ‘religious rituals’, in Lalon however the rejection was limited to prevalent dogmas or meaningless practices which was in direct contradiction to what he viewed were the laws of nature, or even the natural process.
If Belief and existence be the North Pole, and Disbelief and Non-Existence the South, Fakir Lalon Shah was the Equator of our times – an ‘imaginary line’ but one which faithfully delineates the axis of the Universe – yet has necessarily revolved in a straight line even when there is no such thing as a straight line!
Didactically between [A--------B] since we do not know where A starts or B ends, all we can safely deduces is the so-called ‘straight line’ is a cyclic circle, going round and round, in as much as the Universe, its many Solar, Lunar and Planetary systems and very much in the ways of time.
There is no such thing in the bAUL pantheon as a ‘rolling stone gathers no moss’ – for ‘moss’ in the Soul are aberrations – and the Soul as such needs constant redefinition and reaffirmation. ‘What goes around comes around’ is an easier way to define the ‘straight line’ of faith. The ‘forces’ in question were centripetal – not centrifugal.
So did the kO'RAN or Islam have anything to do with Fakir Lalon Shah’s orientation into ‘faith?
© Ongoing Documentation: Maqsoodul Haque - Mac 1st April 1, 2009
These enquiries are limited to existing findings and rationales on the great sage, and are the collation of available data in our folklore, treatise and or literary periodicals and sociological researches of the times gone by until the present.
We insist that what we put forward to readers is 'verifiable' evidence and we have expanded on the scope made available to further our argument in scientific and logical spheres wherever possible.
1. There is empirical evidence to suggest and confirm that a man by the name of Fakir Lalon Shah did exist in Seuria, Kushtia in what was pre-partition (1947) Nadiya district of undivided Bengal, British Imperial India. His date of birth is not known and his death as recorded in his tombstone is 1st Kartick, 1297 corresponding to the Gregorian calendars 17th October 1890. It is estimated that he was between 115 to 117 years of age at the time of his departure – meaning he lived approximately between the periods 1774 AD to 1890 AD.
2. Traditions (not myths) reaffirm where researches and documentations have failed - that Lalon by choice, implications or necessity 'never revealed' his date of birth, the name of his biological parents, his religion, caste or societal background, and any pertinent information that could have been used to track back his roots and origins.
3. Accepted overall is that he was discovered in a near semi-comatose state near the banks of the River Kaliganga in Seuria, Kushtia with a full blown case of smallpox virus (variola major) - a disease discovered in 10,000 BC, with estimated mortality rate as high as 30 to 35%.
4. In 18th Century Europe 400,000 people died of the smallpox each year including seven reigning monarchs – Queen Mary II of England, Emperor Joseph I of Austria, King Luis I of Spain, Tsar Peter II of Russia, Queen Ulrika Elenora of Sweden, and King Louis XV of France.
5. In India the disease evolved about 3,000 years ago with devastating consequences. It appears only among humans and there were no known animal reservoir – nor did insects ever play a part in its transmission. On the 8th of May 1980 World Health Organization declared smallpox to be dead and successfully eradicated from earth.
6. The person who instinctively rescued Lalon from his plight was Motijaan mAA (The Precious Jewels Mother, possibly a later day honorific) who had gone to fetch water before dawn and found his near lifeless form washed up on the river bank, breathing only in gasps and when the sound of sighing drew her attention.
7. Matijaan rushed back to her cottage and summoned her husband Maulana Malam Shah and both reportedly carried this seemingly teenage child (some traditions mention pre-teen) indoor for care, treatment and restoration of health and well being. It is reported that the couple was childless and Lalon thus became their only adopted son. The disease left Lalon apparently partially blind in one eye and his face and rest of his body permanently scarred and/or disfigured with characteristic pockmarks.
In analyzing 1 to 7, we have to bear in mind the social conditions prevalent in Bengal at the time, and historically there are documented evidence and traditions encapsulated in our heritage indicating that smallpox victims were often subject to involuntary euthanasia, - either buried alive or cremated secretly. In rural backwaters the more 'humane' option was to strap a victim to a bhela or makeshift raft made with stalks of the Banana or Bamboo plant, which is then left to float freely overnight in the course of river current, leading either to the raft capsizing, and/or being deliberately scuttled at discovery. Lalon was subject to the same ordeal – the difference being he possibly fell into water and was miraculously washed ashore.
Horrific as this may sound, the author of these series of essays witnessed the Bhela (Raft of Mercy) phenomenon firsthand in the 1960's. A raft adorned with red flag signaling danger - carrying a solitary terminally ill patient veering listlessly in the River Buriganga in Narayanganj – with people on both banks of the river fleeing at the sight of the raft, and boats on course pushing the raft to midstream allowing for a clear passage.
As such, contrary to popular misconceptions, the only way Matijaan and Maulana Malam Shah could have saved Fakir Lalon Shah was to spirit him off secretly to their cottage and confine him without anybody in the near vicinity, having any knowledge of the presence of a patient afflicted by pestilence.
The secrecy option would have been necessitated as otherwise it would have led to violent incidents like burning of the couple's home, with bodily harm and death not outside the scope of possibilities.
The times were desperate; harboring one smallpox patient would amount to death for of an entire village population. Why then would Matijaan and Malam take such a risk?
© Ongoing Research - Maqsoodul Haque - Mac 1st April 2009
A quick update to inform all that I recorded a 45 minutes Tv show with Ayub Bachhu recently.
The programme will be telecast on RMusic (an affiliate of RTv) and I hope to get back with the dates soon.
Meanwhile have a peek at some photographs taken during the shoot at FDC .
Take it easy
The great Man himself - Fareed Rashid -- one of my strongest inspirations in music
Read my article on Fareed