Raza Naeem on the modernism of Muhammad Hasan Askari (1919 – 1978)
It is often stated that a new age of European culture and civilization began from the 15th or 16th centuries – the famed Renaissance (Rebirth). Martin Luther’s Reformation was an outcry of the same but Muhammad Hasan Askari is very upset with both the Renaissance and the Reformation because the beginning of humanism – which he translates as ‘human worship’ – and individual freedom of thought began with these movements. He vehemently objects to the Reformation’s view that: “The salvation of every Christian depends on his individual faith and actions. So every person has the right to read the word of God directly and understand it according to his intellect. The relationship between God and man is direct and priests have no right to come in-between. God Himself will decide upon every man; so the real responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the individual.”
Condemning this ideology, Mr Askari says:
“The root of all modernity and all depravities resulting from it and the essence of all principles is this very individual-worship and refusal of obedience, meaning that modernity is Satanism.”
Ironically, the teachings of Islam are quite close to the above view, which Askari attacks so harshly. In the paragraph above which Askari attributes to Martin Luther, if the word ‘Christian’ is replaced by ‘Muslim’ and ‘priests’ by ‘maulvis’, hardly a conscious Muslim would disagree even minutely with these sayings. After all, God emphasizes repeatedly in the Quran that every person is responsible for their actions and faith, and will be responsible for punishment or reward on the same basis. Every person knows, too, that there is absolutely no room in Islam for papacy. Islam has granted an individual complete freedom of his faith and actions. Without this “individual-worship” (Mr Askari really likes the term ‘worship’ – ‘life-worship’, ‘matter-worship’, etc. even though to accept an ideology does not mean to worship it. Do we begin to worship the Earth while accepting the idea of its rotation?), the whole system of reward and punishment becomes absurd. But Askari is a staunch opponent of the freedom of the individual.
According to Askari, the ‘worship’ of the common man in the 20th century is very wrong, because the common people are like cattle
“When the principle of autonomy and freedom of the individual was created on earth, depravities multiplied in the West.”
What seems to bother him is the idea that Muslims might use their intelligence and consider religious matters on their own.
‘Human-worship’, too, is an extremely despised idea for Mr Askari, meaning “To consider Man the most important among the created beings and to contemplate everything from the point of view of Man.”
But the Islamic idea of Ashraf-ul-Makhluqat is indeed the same. For Muslims, Adam had come to earth as God’s caliph. Obviously in this situation, everything will be reflected upon from the point of view of Man rather than that of mice and bats. Perhaps Askari has forgotten that the whole system of thought and perception of the Islamic idea is very much based on humanism and the path of our poets, indeed, is the same, whether they are Sufis or non-Sufis.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution was an extremely important turn of human history. This revolution shook the foundations of authoritarian monarchy, the church, and nobility in the West and raised the flag of ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity’. Since then, the world entered a new era but Askari is even unhappy with the French Revolution, especially the idea of equality. The wayward and inaccurate description of equality which he offers leaves one amazed. He says:
“By equality, they too mean merely physical or societal requirements, and that all humans are equal not only from the point of view of the rights to fulfil them but are equal in every respect. Therefore there should not be any ranking between humans. So much so that the necessary difference which is there on the basis of mental ability, they are not willing to recognize it too. The demands are put forward on this very principle that everyone should receive the same sort of food, clothing, shelter, etc. Even more absurd is the demand that everyone should get the same education as well. The demand is put forward on this very principle that everyone should have equal rank in religious matters too and the right to comprehend religion should also be given on an equal basis.”
This concept of equality is Mr. Askari’s invention. Most sensible people would never agree with this meaning of equality because all humans are not equal ‘in every respect’, nor are their mental ability, physical energy, or ability to perform equally. Nobody says, too, that everyone should eat the same food; wear the same clothes and live in the same houses. Equality means equal rights of citizens regardless of colour and race, culture and nation – that is, the equal right of conscience, speech, writing and assembly; equal right of educational facilities; equal opportunities of livelihood; and equal conveniences to utilize one’s ability. As far as equality in religious matters is concerned, one had thought to date that all Muslims are equal in the eye of Islam. If, according to Askari, everyone does not have the right to understand religion, then Islam could not be the religion of nature but rather that of a handful of aged men.
Askari’s manner of thinking is elitist like the Roman Catholic priests. He is of the opinion that knowledge of Islam is the monopoly of only the mullahs and patriarchs; the common man has no right to it. According to him, the ‘worship’ of the common man in the 20th century is very wrong, because the common people are like cattle – although one wonders where this ‘worship’ of the common man is taking place. Askari is probably pointing towards the democratic system in which governments are composed of the opinion of common people. So he says: “The ulema should be wary of these two words meaning democracy and equality.”
History is the dialogue of the past with the present. The paths to the future are illuminated by this very dialogue and society learns a lesson. The skill which Muslim historians have attained in the art of writing history is acknowledged by time. Who can deny the historic services of Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Muqaffa, Ibn Qutaybah, Al-Yaqubi, Al-Tabari, Ibn Nadim, Al-Shahrastani, Al-Waqidi, Al-Masudi, Ibn Athir, and Ibn Khaldun?
But Mr Askari while discussing the ideas of the 19th century has also come down hard on ‘history-worship’. In his opinion: “This tactic has been effective in creating carelessness from religion among people.”
History is no more the tale of a few royal families or the rise and fall of nations but the sages of the West have compiled an era-by-era history of the evolution of shrub and stone, animal and human, everything with the help of modern knowledge. When this world came into existence; when and how the traces of life appeared in it; what were the initial shapes of animals and humans and how changes occurred in them; how human society passed through different periods; how was the manner of the existence and subsistence of the people in every period and what were their beliefs and customs and traditions. All this information is indeed the result of a historical point of view. Similarly, the history of universal ideas and religions has also been compiled and every person can establish an opinion by studying them comparatively; but Mr Askari does not grant us even the right of freedom of thought because according to him “Freethinking is a huge blow to religion.” He also does not like the terminology of ‘progress’. In fact, he is upset that the magic of progress did not end even after two world wars. But what does Mr. Askari want? Does he wish that Muslims should abstain from attempting to progress and sit in secluded meditation, praying only for bettering their afterlife? How would he reconcile this with clearly established Islamic teachings?
Discussing the inclinations of thought in the 20th century, Askari acknowledges the fact that the latest inventions of science “have influenced and impressed the Eastern mind in an extreme manner and the East indeed is swiftly becoming the West, that is why the ulema are facing trouble in the defence of faith too.”
The result, for him, is that: “the ulema suppress one form of depravity by competing with it, another form appears alongside it, then the third, then the fourth.” According to him, “the period of the opposition of religion actually ended with World War I (1914-1919) and now the period of modernity has arrived when false faiths and false traditions are being invented. Therefore one should be wary of all new philosophies and new science.”
Askari while indicating the ‘false’ faiths of the present times has rejected Freud, Jung, Bergson and William James. He even attacks Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. Nevertheless, existentialism was really popular among his disciples because to them it was a form of countering Marxism.
A relentless Askari has included communism and Marxism in these ‘false’ faiths; although how he defines communism does not tell us about what his objection to communism is and which of its principles is he in disagreement with. He says:
“Communism or Marxism is a special form of socialism. Its founder is the 19th-century German thinker Karl Marx. His ideas are founded on this thought that the entire life of Man is dependent on economics and whether it is culture or philosophy, poetry and literature or religion, everything is determined by economic processes. In every era, whatever type of means of production will be owned by Man, the philosophy and civilization of that era will be determined accordingly, even the religion. That is why his ideology is called ‘dialectical materialism’. Materialism has indeed been already defined. ‘Dialectics’ means that in every era, social classes have been opposed to each other. In every era, one class rules with respect to the means of production and when there is progress in the means of production, the ruling class is defeated and the class lower to it becomes the ruler. In the middle of the 19th century, Marx had announced that now the period has come when dominance in society should be of the working class. The leader of the Russian Revolution Lenin added to this philosophy in that when the government of the workers will be fully stable and class struggle will vanish, then there would be no need of the state as well and it will end by gradually withering away.”
Mr Askari has jumbled up dialectical materialism and historical materialism in this quotation and attributed to Lenin what had been said by Marx’s comrade Friedrich Engels about the state. Dialectical materialism is the universal philosophy of Marxism and the application of this philosophy to the societal system is characterized as historical materialism. The first principle of dialectic materialism is that all the existing things of the world are made of matter. The second principle is that matter by its nature is ever-dynamic and changing. The third principle is that material things adopt new forms according to the law of motion and change, and new qualities are created in them. Matter does not ever perish. According to Iqbal,
“Sakoon muhaal he qudrat ke kaarkhane men
Sabaat aik taghayyur ko he zamane men”
(The workshop of Nature is ever restless
Stability within every change is indeed timeless)
Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.
This essay was first published in the Friday Times, Lahore
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org