Is Javed Ghamidi The Galileo Galileo Of Our Age?

by Ajaz-ul-Haque

He matters because he presents faith as a living reality and not as a fairy tale. He matters because he retrieves sense we have lost in sensation. He matters because he says he doesn’t matter, truth does.  

Javed Ghamdi (L) Galileo Galilei (R)

Ghamidi is the Galileo of our age. Both are criminals. Both commit the crime of seeing when blindness means virtue and blind are blessed. Both are persecuted by their own countrymen. Both challenge those who bureaucratize religion and make faith their fiefdom. Both shake the world by saying what the world is not prepared to listen.

Comparing an intellectual of Pakistan Javed Ghamidi with an astronomer of Italy Galileo Galilei simplifies the debate for me. Well, I am not a Ghamidi fan in the popular sense of the word. Getting inspired by a thinker never means declaring your sponsorship for him. Reading Galileo doesn’t mean you are a Galileoian, but that also doesn’t mean you hide your opinion for the fear of being clubbed as one.

Thinkers don’t make followers the way politicians do, demagogues do. They don’t brainwash, they teach. They don’t snub you for questioning them, they wish you question them. In the world of learning, there is no hero-worship, no gods to follow, there are teachers you learn from. So there is nothing like `Ghamidian’ as the man lets you think of your own.

Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, a US based Pakistani Muslim theologian

Ghamidi is not a one-size-fits-all answer to our questions. He just throws the light, and I see for myself. If this light (as his critic) urges me to demolish him, I will. But if this light (as his fan) inspires me to adore him, I will.

The debate is not focused on a person. Persons act as references, like Galileo is a reference for the truth he told. Aristotle said `Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is the truth’. So if Ghamidi will be dear, dearer still will be the truth.

Forget Ghamidi, see the point. It’s about two approaches to knowledge. One shuts all doors to thinking and the other opens them. One enrages and the other enlightens. One gives you a conclusion, the other an insight.  Presume there is no Ghamidi (if that solves the whole problem), but the debate still remains. Presume there is no Galileo, but the question `what revolves around what’ would still disturb the world. Dismissing Galileo would neither alter the truth nor diminish the Galileon grandeur. Individuals are ordinary, qualities make them extra-ordinary and that is where Ghamidi arrives on the scene. He matters …….

.…… because thinking matters:

In a world where God is dismissed as a delusion, faith as a fairy tale and revelation as a wishful construct; he presents religion as a living reality. (No I don’t mean God needs a Ghamidi to prove His existence, I just mean the challenges faith faces on intellectual count). We haven’t come out of a medieval mode where religion was either sold as a carrot or thrust as a stick. Ours is a world ruled by ideas.

Galileo Galilei

Besides the old Nietzsche-Russel-brand atheist school, read modern multi-faith bashers like Blackburn, Harare, Pinker, Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Grayling and a whole host of thinkers who influence millions across the world. They don’t just rant. Theirs is not a cheap babble to be dismissed in a fit of anger and ignorance. They throw an intellectual challenge to religion and we can’t bury our head in the sand. We don’t know them as we have burnt books the day we burnt boats in history.  Or if we do, our response is either hysterical or apologetic.

At present when you search for someone who can meet a challenge like this, who can match – rather surpass – such level of thinking, very few names emerge from the Muslim world and one prominent name is Ghamidi. We face a famine of original thinkers and he is our hope. Away from our chapter-number-verse-number ping-pong stage-spectacles, or mushy tear-jerkers that move hearts but numb minds, his is a graceful and profound engagement with learning. He makes religion appealing to a post-modern mind that otherwise accepts atheism as the only vaccine against the virus of faith.

Ghamidi makes religion relevant to a life where we don’t just worship, we also meet, we fight, we love, we hate, we stumble, we fall, we stand, we sin and we do all that constitutes life in its beauty and ugliness. At a time when Muslims are projected either terrorists or jokers, a mind like Ghamidi restores dignity to the discourse of faith. He does what Iqbal imagined to do. Iqbal gave a thought, Ghamidi wove it into action and if action matters more, then Ghamidi matters more.

……because curiosity matters:

We have lost intellectual appetite and that is a lament. We are happy with what we know and pained with what we don’t. Knowledge is the curse we keep away from ourselves. And here Ghamidi provokes us to taste forbidden. While entering the lab of learning, he doesn’t destroy the old foundation, he upholds it.  He reforms, revisits and reconstructs the architecture of knowledge and intellect – seriously and curiously. He makes us understand the subtle difference between religion and understanding of religion and that is where we fail to catch him. We confuse religion with religious thought. One is divine, the other human. We mess up faith with culture, society, tradition and that blinds us to facts.

Ghamidi spells out divine commands, legal codes, social norms and cultural practices in their original background. He explores the space between optional, obligatory, admirable, permissible, pardonable and punishable. That is what a curious mind does. Setting apart the highest standards of piety from the demands of an ordinary life. We are obsessed with heaven-hell, Islamic-unIslamic, God-devil binaries. In excitement, we lose the curiosity to distinguish and he seeks to regain the same.

Ghamidi universalizes Islam not by amending or altering it, but by presenting it the way it presents itself along with its spiritual, moral, historical text and context. He doesn’t have his own Din-e-Ilahi to offer – the conclusion we so naively derive. He backs every bit with the very word we all hold sacred. His faith is far stronger than those who flaunt faith as a badge of piety. Wonder where lies the discord. Either we don’t know, or we know but don’t understand, or we understand but don’t accept or we accept but don’t show the honesty to acknowledge the truth. Just because we don’t see never means it doesn’t exist.

The concept of religion for our preachers is dark and dreadful. They leave no space to enter faith, Ghamidi leaves no space to exit. With their understanding of God, life is impossible. With his, life is not just possible, it’s beautiful. He is the axe of hope that cuts open the path through a frozen sea of ignorance and fear. That is why he matters.

……because grace matters:

On religious issues, we are volcanic. Even the coolest and the gentlest amongst us turn rough, violent and graceless – and that too in the name of God. Our intellectual discourse is no different from a street-talk where louder you go, nobler you become. We like either mindless adulation or a rude assault and both ways we lose grace. So in a culture where the level of intolerance determines the level of faith, here is a man who respects even his detractors and engages with them with all decency. He radically disagrees with the philosophy of Syed Moudoodi, Syed Qutub and many religious thinkers, but expresses his profound respect for them. He shows how we disagree with grace, confidence and decency – the trait we are not familiar with. When we fail in the argument we cast doubt, we throw fits, we invent motives and resort to the cheapest means to malign others. And here Ghamidi stands as an institution of grace. That is how intellectuals behave, that is what the spirit of knowledge teaches us and that is why he matters.

……because argument matters:

Ghamidi doesn’t express his rejection in a typical main nahi manta mode. He doesn’t accept or he doesn’t reject, he explains why or why not. Concluding in a line that `he is fine with interest or fine with a dead Jesus or fine with an uncommitted sin or fine with music or fine with being beardless is the result of a hasty outlook which yields wrong conclusions. Issues like beard, purdah, music, interest, women rights, statecraft, inheritance are to be studied in light of history, tradition and scripture. They are serious debates, not some rapid-fire questions with a `yes-no’ answers we have been fed with. He places things where they belong. And while doing so, he doesn’t step out of the circle of faith to draw his own line. He shows you the scene from within. Presenting religion by denying religion is easy. Courage is to stay rooted and show the things as they are, not as they have been passed down to us.

Devotees raise their hands for prayers as the head priest (not seen) displays the relic of relic of Sheikh Syed Abdul Qadir Jeelani at his shrine. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Our problem is reverse. We finish before we begin. We scoop out a bucket or two from the ocean and conclude there is no whale in the sea. Let’s have a bigger sample to back our findings. If we disagree with Ghamidi’s argument (and we have a right to), first we need to attend to the base of the argument. Second, he is not alone in history to have said so. There are others too who we either don’t know or don’t bother to know or know but ignore. He does not twist the text as we think he does. Critiquing him after engaging with him will be seriously different from condemning him unheard or half-heard or misheard.

We don’t bother to see whether he really says what we accuse him of saying. We are not prepared to accept whether it’s his thoughts or it’s our own understanding of his thoughts. Simply put, we don’t differentiate between what he says and what we say he says. It takes care, concentration, pain and patience before something sinks before we summon up a counter-argument. And we are not in a court where we win or lose, we are in a lab where we learn. A two-minute video clip or a few lines read from a poster is too insufficient a ground to base our argument on. Too cheap to be called scholarship. We can’t counter an argument by manipulating the argument. That is not just the fragility of our intellect but the corruption of our conscience too. His argument demands attention – and that is why he matters.

……because sense matters:

Sense precedes intellect. We must sound sane before we are declared intellectuals. Certain things require common sense, genius has no role there. Suspending our reason will make us firmer in our beliefs no matter how crazy or false. But once we bother to see and smell with our senses (which even animals do), the truth begins to dawn. Meet sense with better sense, maybe you are right he is wrong. But noise can’t silence the truth.

And then – unlike many – he doesn’t slap a fatwa, he merely gives his understanding for others to think it through their own way. We love to be imprisoned by our own biases. We love to go cheap, not deep. If he liberates us from some self-imposed concepts which we had either innocently or ignorantly or mistakenly or accidentally or falsely attributed to Quran or to Sunnah or to tradition, we can kill him for his bad verses, but that won’t finish the debate. Ghamidi’s narration of individuals, concepts or events in history is not self-woven, it’s sense-woven – and that is why he matters.

……because clarity matters:

Any student of communication, language and literature will learn from a teacher like him. The lucidity with which he conducts his argument appeals literate and illiterate alike. Who wouldn’t adore this flare and flavour backed by a proverbial crystal-like clarity without any sophistry and rhetoric? Right or wrong apart, clarity is the hallmark of a genuine thinker and that is why he matters.

……because integrity matters:

The last one figures first. We may have everything but here we are found wanting. He lives the principles he seeks to profess. And that is where most of us falter. He stood where our sanctimonious preachers of faith fall. Since emotion doesn’t need any action, we are safer (and smarter) being emotional. Soapy hollow sentiments are cost-free, what matters is the price you pay for saying what you believe is the truth. Ours is a mouth-bound, lip-limited, self-congratulatory declaration of love for God and the prophet – be peace upon him. Ideally, it sounds sweet, but practically it comes with a cost which we can’t bear, he bears – and that is why he matters.

Aijaz ul Haq

In him, all these qualities mix in such beautiful measure that we can’t say what outweighs what? And that is why he matters.

(Ajaz-ul-Haque is a Srinagar-based columnist. He works as Producer at Educational Multimedia Research Centre, University of Kashmir. The article was first published in Kashmir Times. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.) 

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