Ibrahim Abu-Rabi has summed up that Nursi’s [1876-1960] ‘career and writings provide us with deep insights into — the predicament of the traditional class of ullama, the failure of Islamic reform movement of the 19th century to provide an Islamic solution to the challenge of Westernization, — and state of religion in Kemalist Turkey —— perhaps the most interesting part was his sustained intellectual and religious challenge to the secularist and nationalist system built by Kemal Ataturk.’
I want to share with you short snippets of the life, work and letters of three eminent contemporaries of Said from the Indian sub continent – a Sikh Bhai Vir Singh; a Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and a Muslim Allama Mohammed Iqbal – all who endeavored to bring back a sense of dignity to dispirited people, position them for their political future in a changing world and reform their traditions from within to meet these challenges. My purpose really is thus to encourage a broader look at the great work done by the Said in the wider perspective of the experience and responses to the challenges of change by various traditions in their respective, though significantly similar, situations.
Bhai Vir Singh [1872-1957] was born into a family with strong tradition in Sikh scholarship, both on his father and his mother’s sides. This influence rubbed on his youthful mind and in 1892 when he was barely twenty he became active in Singh Sabha movement for Sikh reform; published books for children in Punjabi and Urdu and started translating Sheikh Saudi’s works ‘Gulistan’ and ‘Dabistan’; founded Khalsa College [then as school] and established Wazir-e-Hind Press, the first at Amritsar. He founded the Khalsa Tract Society in 1894 to propagate Sikh culture and religion. The Society distributed millions of tracts and publications on various aspects of Sikh reform. In 1899 he started ‘Khalsa Samachar’, a weekly paper that soon became the organ for discussion and development of Sikh thought and aspirations and influenced the Sikh thinking for the next half century. In 1900 he was associated in the formation of Chief Khalsa Diwan that took leading role in shaping Sikh social, religious and political activities. In 1908 he founded the Sikh Educational Committee which spear headed the spread of primary and secondary education among Sikhs. As a philanthropist, he established ‘Vidhva Ashram’ an institution for widows at Amritsar in 1912; a hospital at Taran Taran in 1915; an ‘ashram’ for the blind in 1935 and a free Homeopathic Hospital in 1943 at Amritsar.
He grew up in age of ferment in Sikhs post their loss of Empire. The aristocracy had lost their sheen and Punjabi intellectual life was in decline. Sikhs had concerns about their survival and definition of the boundaries of their faith in the face of growing need for modernization and to contain Hindu attempts at appropriating Sikhism as part of their tradition by interweaving Hindu motifs into the essential Sikh teaching. His thrust was directed at redefining Sikhism. He lived through the Gurdwara Refom movement of 1920’s that culminated in the control of historical Sikh shrines passing into the hands of Sikh elective body. This was a high moment in resurgence that Sikhs were striving for.
Over the prior three centuries Sikh literary heritage had grown in Braj because of the disturbed conditions in Punjab and continued patronage from the Sikh aristocracy. To reclaim this position he transformed the writing in Punjabi, prose, poetry, and gave it new rhythm, flow and direction sensitive to expression of Sikh thought and also contemporary social and political challenges. He wrote almost all his theological, scholarly and creative work exclusively in Punjabi. His novels include those on Sikh experience in 18th century as models of courage, fortitude and human dignity and others with numerous motifs of social reform, moral teaching in pluralistic confrontational setting. As a poet his concern seems to be more aesthetic and he transformed the old measures of sorath, var, kabit and baint. His legacy is reflected in the vitality of the emerging Sikh identity and Sikh thought and burgeoning Sikh literature in Punjabi.
Gandhi [1869-1948] was trained in England to be a Barrister. An early influence on him was when upon reading Tolstoy he discovered to relate non-violence to social action. He had tremendous assets that make a successful leader and he used them effectively to further the political objectives he held so dear and important.
He was a prolific writer. His prose was succinct and he could articulate the inner yearning of a people under foreign domination. He identified with the poor by his simplistic living and adopting their visible symbols and connected with them through his strong sense of the spiritual and ethical in the Indian tradition.
As a Hindu reformer Gandhi tried to reconstruct Hindu thought – his Discourses on Gita, 1927, represent conscious effort to relate religious thought to urgent problems of the day; particularly in the face of the failures of revolutionary struggles of 20’s. He cast the battle as between dharma and adharma; right and wrong; good and evil and asked people to make the right choices. He decried hypocrisy and superstition but did not give up on the ascetic in Hinduism and believed in chastity and self-mortification. He wanted Hindus to decide for themselves and left alone to reform their faith from within.
His main thrust was against foreign dominance and therefore his work, responses and utterances received tremendous coverage and analysis by insiders as well as outsiders. His legacy of ‘swadeshi’, ‘satyagraha’ and non-violence did not survive in practice even his own lifetime. Indian Government hails him as the father of Nation.
The story of Iqbal [1877-1938] has its own rich features. He also received his higher education in Europe and was an intellectual giant with a very sensitive mind and pious disposition. As a man of letters, poet and scholar he achieved extraordinary heights. Over time his political thought transformed from an inclusive, democratic political structure to one that additionally envisaged constitutional protection for the rights, heritage and aspirations of Muslims. This soon became the inspiration for seeking a separate Muslim state.
Iqbal became the impassioned voice, through his poetic images, of spiritually despairing Muslims after their loss of Mughal Empire. He like Gandhi, Vir Singh and others was motivated to rid India of Imperialists domination and assert a voice for their tradition. He was well educated and wrote poetry in Urdu and Persian but his significant prose writing was in English.
Iqbal wanted all people to know about all religions and to recognize that changes in perspective were always happening in all traditions. He delivered his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam lectures in Madras in 1929; a period sensed as one of failure by Muslims too. He also wanted the Muslims to be left to decide on the direction, priorities and pace of their reform. He wanted the Muslims to approach problems of modernity with careful judgment and insight. He wanted cultural autonomy for Muslims within the political plurality because he feared that a minority could easily retreat into sterile religious conservatism.
Iqbal considered Nationalism the greater threat to the future of peaceful society – dying in the name of nationhood was as bad for citizens could be manipulated to hate citizens of other nations. Yet, he has been called the father of the Nation of Pakistan. He felt politics has its roots in the spiritual life of a man. Change could only come if men felt deeply for and worked for. He wanted the Muslims to think of their political and cultural future together for then only the religion could survive and religious values blossom into action.
The contribution by all these three was very important in the context of changes that were engulfing the world in the early 20th century and studying their lives and works could be a source of interesting and instructive insights into the mission of the great Said.
Guleria, J S, Bhai Vir Singh, National Book Shop, Delhi.
Mc Donough, Sheila, The Flame of Sinai, Iqbal Academy, Lahore
Brown, Judith M, Gandhi, Yale University Press
Abu-Rabi, Ibrahim M [Ed.], Islam at the Crossroads, SUNY