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In religious societies such as ours, a constant tension is observed between the afterlife and the here and now. Instead of employing the concept for what it meant in its true spirit — urging public good by encouraging our contribution to improving the conditions of mutual living — an abstract fear of the hereafter is instilled in people’s hearts. This fear has much less to do with the kind treatment of other human beings and far more to do with observing rites and rituals upon which people think they will be judged. We are made to live in a psychic prison-house of the hereafter and the temporal time we spend is relegated to an insignificant position. Therefore, we observe a disregard for any regulations needed to create an organised society. People donate to mosques, but see no benefit in paying taxes to the state. Being secular is seen as being areligious or atheistic. Conservative forces condemn the idea of secularism and equate it with godlessness, which will lead us into becoming an unethical and amoral society. While secularism simply means this-worldliness and expresses a desire to improve this life and living conditions for humanity by creating an inclusive state and plural society, it holds no bearing on personal faith or a community’s religion. Besides, in Pakistan, our claims to religious piety and round-the-clock preaching and proselytising have contributed little to making us an ethical and moral lot.

Sibte Hasan’s Musa Se Marx Tak [From Moses to Marx] that appeared in 1977 was the first significant book in Urdu that traced the history of both secular and people-centred thinking over centuries of human civilisation. Hasan’s work is hugely inspired by The Socialist Tradition: From Moses to Lenin by British historian of economic thought Alexander Gray. In the same tradition, Muslim Shamim published Secular Mufakkireen: Suqrat Se Sibte Hasan Tak [Secular Thinkers: From Socrates to Sibte Hasan], which appeared exactly 40 years after Hasan’s work. However, what makes Shamim’s work original is his concern with the contribution of thinkers in our part of the world, with a particular emphasis on Pakistani scholars, writers and political leaders subscribing to secular ideals. He deals with Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle along with judiciously observing the groundbreaking thoughts of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, but he skilfully localises the debate and brings it close to what we have witnessed in Pakistan.

Shamim, an advocate by profession, is a man of diverse interests and multiple talents. He is a seasoned political worker, a leading social commentator, a refined poet and an insightful literary critic. He has applied his knowledge of ideas and individuals, political history and social transformation, creative expression and literary movements in explaining both the physical struggle and the intellectual journey of more than 20 outstanding people who shaped our progressive thinking — from Niaz Fatehpuri and Sibte Hasan to Mir Ghaus Bux Bizenjo and Hyder Bux Jatoi. And while he is compassionate towards his comrades, he is not blinded by this camaraderie in critiquing their ideas.

Instead of undermining the Muslim contribution to progressive thinking in South Asia — something that has become increasingly fashionable with a number of contemporary scholars — Shamim anchors himself in the Indo-Muslim political tradition, which he later narrows down to trends in Pakistan’s recent history. He explores the strands of secular thought within the parameters of his own civilisation. That makes him relevant in terms of the realpolitik in Pakistan. But he can be challenged here by those whose strict theoretical understanding makes it impossible for them to reconcile with the idea of a country formed on the basis of communal politics. Shamim writes on the contribution of enlightened Arab Muslim scholars before swiftly leading to his argument that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Muhammad Iqbal need to be referred to for promoting progressive thought in South Asian Muslim societies, including Pakistan. He also writes about some secular religious scholars, bringing home the point that a secular state is not at odds with a Muslim majority society — an assertion also made by Professor Fateh Mohammed Malik in many of his works.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 15th, 2018