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NARRATIVE ARC: INTELLECTUAL OASES

September 10, 2017

We live in a society where for weeks, the headline news on television revolved around the patchy conjugal life of a British-Pakistani boxer. At best, this man is marginally inspiring for some young sportsmen and his wife is one among a million fashion models found in the United Kingdom. We are later shown how a local faith leader is helping the couple reconcile their differences. It remains an evolving story and coverage continues.

In our schools, colleges, newsrooms, offices, cafés and canteens, the possibility of any radical debate or challenging discussion is being limited like never before. To investigate a subject critically is impermissible; to raise an independent voice puts one’s safety at risk. If you find yourself on the wrong side of any of the factions of the self-styled custodians of religion or national interest, you would be lucky to be forewarned before an act of violence is committed against you.

In this age where bigotry, ignorance, intolerance are revered and knowledge is ridiculed, it takes a lot of courage to be a professed free-thinker and resolute advocate of rationality. Above all, to write consistently on ancient and modern philosophy in Urdu with devotion and diligence is an extraordinary service to serious Pakistani readers.

Ashfaq Saleem Mirza is one of those rare scholars of philosophy who save this country from turning into a complete intellectual wasteland. In his writing, on occasion he touches upon other subjects as well, ranging from Greek drama and Urdu verse to contemporary politics and social movements. Mirza belongs to that powerful progressive tradition of independent thinking that produced stalwarts such as Syed Muhammad Taqi, Syed Sibte Hasan, Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, et al. His contemporaries and companions meriting a mention here include Dr Iqbal Afaqi and Qazi Javed. There are others as well who may be seen as contributing to philosophical thinking and writing in Urdu, but their approach is a mix of Western philosophy, critical theory, political ideology and literary criticism. In terms of pure inquiry into, and explanation of, modern philosophical thought, however, Mirza stands out.

Mirza’s Machiavelli Se Gramsci Tak: Ek Mutalea Aur Inteqad [From Machiavelli to Gramsci: A Study and Critique], tracks the history of political thought over centuries. It took him more than four years to finish this formidable work spread over more than 400 pages. The book is divided into eight chronological chapters. The first sets the backdrop against which Niccolo Machiavelli appears — from Plato and Greek political philosophy to Saint Augustine and Christian teachings, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to the age of enlightenment, from William of Ockham to Marsilius of Padua. Then there is a chapter critiquing Machiavelli, his life and thoughts. Mirza sees the importance of Machiavelli as the first secular political theorist who rationalised monarchy on the basis of its advantages in his times rather than seeking guidance from a divine order. Mirza moves on to a powerful chapter establishing the difference between philosophy and theology with renewed vigour. Then he comes to detailed analyses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georg Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and, finally, Antonio Gramsci.

Mirza explains Gramsci’s ideas that subverted the economic determinism of traditional Marxist thinkers and practitioners. He narrates Gramsci’s trailblazing thoughts on cultural hegemony, historicism and economism, subaltern classes, the role of intellectuals and the manner in which civil society functions. It is an objective text, but there is a fondness that can be spotted in Mirza for the way Gramsci employed and manoeuvred the tools of Marxism in order to better understand human society and the class struggle. However, when analysing the contemporary global political situation Mirza never becomes predictive and evenly describes the achievements and pitfalls of socialist experiments. The only thing I miss is Mirza’s informed analysis of Georg Lukacs and Karl Kautsky, who are important to be understood when investigating Gramsci’s thoughts.

On another note, I would urge Mirza to finish his work on Vedic civilisation soon.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2017