Islamic Ethics and Friendship

Both scholars Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have studied the Islamic Revival in Egypt and noted the pedagogical value of ritual.
Asad writes:
What Shaykh Usama was trying to describe was thus more interesting than the disapproval of my friends in Cairo. What he sought to convey was the idea of intention itself being constituted in the repeated acts of body-and-mind within a social context. In fact, like the mastery of all grammar, the ability to perform devotions well (to devote oneself) required not only repetition but also flexibility in different circumstances. It was not simply a matter of acting as in the past but of acquiring a capability for which the past was a beginning and by which the need to submit consciously to a rule would eventually disappear. When one mastered the capability, its exercise did not require a continuous monitoring of oneself (“Am I following the rule correctly?”).
According to Shaykh Usama there was always a social dimension to the disciplines of devotion, as in the traditional duty of every Muslim “to urge what is good and oppose what is reprehensible” (amr bi-l-ma‘rūf wa nahy ‘an al-munkar),[18] including advice (nasīha) and warning (tahdhīr). What I found intriguing about his discourse was the attempt to tie amr bi-l-ma‘rūf to the virtue of “friendship” (suhba, ikhwa), to present it as a matter of responsibility and concern for a friend rather than simply of policing.[19] The language and attitude in which one carried out that duty was integral to what amr bi-l-ma‘rūf was, because, “Every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim.” What is known historically in Christian history as “pastoral care” is here diffused among all Muslims in relation to one another.
In Mahmood's book Politics of Piety, she makes a distinction between amr bi-l-ma‘rūf  and the practice of da'wa. The former emphasizes moral exhortation while the latter can also include violent interference. (p59-60; Mahmood also cites the commonly invoked hadith in explaining amr bi-l-ma‘rūf : "Whosoever among you sees a munkar must correct it by hand. And if not able to, then by tongue. And if unable to do even that, then by heart. And this is the weakest [manifestation] of faith.") Still, there are similarities in her text with Asad's. She a also notes how female practitioners discuss the relation between intent and practice. Having an ethical comport is sufficient in some cases, but by and large following the rules also have a value in itself that would enhance or strengthen the ethical comport. For example, one female preacher suggested that the rules for women to lower their gaze during private tutor sessions led by a male is not optional even when both parties harbor pure intents. Another example is about the earliest option prayer: when one practitioner expressed difficulty in waking up and washing for this prayer, the preacher suggests that she isn't thinking about God during the day, and perhaps there are other problems that prevent her from harboring purer intents. Women "pursued the process of honing and nurturing the desire to pray through the performance of seemingly unrelated deeds during the day (whether cooking, cleaning, or running an errand), until that desire became a part of their condition of being." (p124)

These practices also extend the meaning of self, which is a project Mahmood suggested to do from the book's first chapter (p13)--

Earlier critics have drawn attention to the masculinist assumptions underpinning the ideal of autonomy, later scholars faulted this idea for its emphasis on the atomistic, individualized, and bounded characteristics of the self at the expense of its rational qualities formed through social interactions within forms of human community. Consequently, there have been various attempts to redefine autonomy so as to capture the emotional, embodied, and socially embedded character of people, particularly of women. A more radical strain of poststructuralist theory has situated its critique of autonomy within a larger challenge posed to the illusory character of the rationalist, self-authorizing, transcendental subject presupposed by Enlightenment thought in general... 
Asad also emphasizes the role of others in creating the sense of self in invoking discussion on the collective effort of hisba (accountability):
Hussein Agrama contrasts hisba as a form of care of the self and also as a legal device: “While hisba, in its classical Shari‘a elaborations, was part of a form of reasoning and practice connected to the cultivation of selves, in the courts it became focused on the maintenance and defense of interests aimed at protecting the public order.”[24] His account demonstrates that when the shari‘a tradition of amr bi-l-ma‘rūf is incorporated into the judicial system of the state, it becomes part of the state’s coercive power and legalized suspicion in the interest of public order, and this makes friendship not merely impossible but also a distortion of the modern (impersonal) concept of justice.
These observations are also related to my reflections on friendship and how to relate to others. I really benefit from reading and thinking about these differences. I have not yet read the continental philosophers' works on friendship, but perhaps there could be some overlaps with what I have presented in this post


Vipassana Meditation Part III: The Obstacles

Before we left the meditation center, our teacher Vijaya told us that we should practice at least half an hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. Another former student, a middle aged Indian uncle, chimed in and said at least one hour is necessary to keep up the practice. He came to a meditation retreat a long while ago and stopped altogether. Coming back to it was very difficult for him. At that time I was excited to come back to the real world and share my experiences; I was not so hung up on the advice because I knew once everyone leaves the place, challenges will occur and excuses not to meditate would come by easily. Challenges to the practice already existed inside the well-organized albeit temporary meditation center.

I constantly wanted to write during my meditation hours. I managed to sneak and write a few short notes when I could not hold back, although it was against the rules. I also got bored sometimes even when the electric tingling experience was "happening." Instead, I would reminisce the films I watched before. Italian classic Cinema Paradiso was particularly vivid and when the explosion of the cinema happened in my head, the tingling also intensified surreptitiously. A fellow meditator exclaimed on the last day that she also had replays of Sesame Street songs or unpleasant film scenes.

I recounted these experiences to a friend of mine, a Chinese monk. He also knew before that people's memory becomes extremely sharp during meditation, even in traditions other than Vipassana. He recounted an urban legend: a guy who used to be a butcher terminated his trade and followed the Buddhist path. During a silent group meditation sitting in a temple, he shouted "Ahh!!" Everyone looked at him. Apparently, he remembered how someone short-changed him in exchange for the pork he sold a long time ago. I could definitely relate to these aha moments, although luckily none of my memories were as regretful (e.g., "I should have caught that person who short changed me!"). I also have similar issues nowadays while practicing at home. 

Aside from the neuro-challenges during meditation, one long term obstacle to the practice has been the cultural baggage. I don't want to be seen as someone "looking for a trip," in the words of Goenka, but then to be "committed" to yoga, meditation and/or some other practic has also been tough. Although no one has ever criticized me for testing the waters, I project these judgments at times. Goenka's reassurance has helped settle down some of that baggage.

JNU at dusk, usually the time when people come out to exercise
Politics has also come into the list of challenges to meditation. When I exchanged in JNU, Delhi, the dominant attitude among the Left was to frown down upon certain activities related to the Hindu pantheon. Yoga day was recently introduced by the Modi government and that would obviously be taken up as an issue, since many of the minorities who don't want to bow to the sun. I would sometimes see a person meditating by the tracks under the tree. I wondered when I would ever have the confidence to do that in public. The politics veered towards an automatic, reflexive bent--when the Paris attacks happened, I would overhear a person in JNU my age explaining to his parents (who were strolling with him) about the hypocrisy of the Western world--"no one mourned for [x country] when [y number] of people died!" I was emboldened when I heard it at first, since it reflected my views as well. But sometimes this attitude could become a dogma as well, especially in regards to spirituality. Anything with an "om" becomes the agenda of the Hindutva or Brahminical. My friend Amit, who meditates, also agreed with me on this point. He thought that more JNU students could benefit from meditation. In other words, we all have the obstacles we created on an intellectual level.

One of the rare Hindu events on campus that I attended--Kali Puja
On the other hand, one can also see how meditation can be difficult in a casteist society even if the programs are offered free of cost to all participants (They are sponsored by previous students' donations). When asked by Linda about caste and Buddhism, I said that if one is used to being an outcast, it would be very difficult for him or her on a psychological level to even enter a space that offered Vipassana in India. But that I have yet to corroborate with research. Someone should research on the challenges posed by caste on the Vipassana revival in India! 

Paradoxically, I gained the courage and motivation to treat meditation seriously at JNU, even when I didn't pick up the practice then. My friends here, such as Yogesh, were committed to social issues but also incorporated meditation in their lives. Yogesh would often suggest that I meditate as a way to concentrate on my studies and offered rewards, as if I was in his class as a student. He was a good mentor during difficult times. Alas, other cravings were stronger at the time. Still, I managed to meditate again despite the challenges. I could even say that the challenges helped me look inward: I was in the happiest and liveliest place in India, yet suffering was still all around. Turning inward was indeed an answer, even months after I had left.


Vipassana Meditation Part II: The Experience

The previous Part I post has introduced the Vipassana technique, how I came across meditation, and some of the debates in my mind during the practice. This post I will discuss some of the experiences and insights gathered from the fellow meditators. 

Goenka's dharma talks helped a lot to gain insight in what occurs each time anger overwhelms oneself. Simply put, the mind has many functions in its perception of the outside world. Reactions are one way that we deal with the world: when we like something, we create craving. When we dislike something, we generate aversion. The ideal state is that one should react with equanimity to all sensations, and thus eliminate aversion or craving. But oftentimes the reaction faculty is strengthened beyond other faculties, such as observation. When anger overwhelms us, we are not the masters of our own minds. Even watching films, drinking a glass of water, eating nice food or taking a walk only diverts the problem. Meditation helps us weaken the reaction faculty that often overpowers us with negative thoughts or speech when someone says something against our ego.

One other excellent way to deal with possible sources of anger is to see how you are in control of what kind of poison you take in. It's crazy but we take in poisons all the time even though on an intellectual level we would all agree to stop suffering. (Brother Khalil Jaffer has delineated this problem excellently in his 6-part series The End of Negative Suffering.) Buddha is one of the masters of this practice: once there was a devout Hindu man who lived in the time of Buddha. His family started Vipassana practice and stopped performing Hindu rites. He was furious that Buddha has led his family "astray" and went angrily to Buddha. He had a mouthful of dirty language and insults. 
The Buddha was unmoved in the slightest by this barrage of insults and just asked a question in return:“Do you sometimes receive visitors as guests?” “Yes I do” replied Akkosa. “And when they come, do you offer them food and drink and courtesies?” asked the Buddha. “Yes, sometimes I do” Akkosa said.
“So what if your guests don’t accept what you offer to them – where do the food, drink and courtesies return to?” “They return to me of course!” Akkosa answered. 
“Akkosa, you came here today, hurling insults and abuse at me.  I do not accept what you have offered.  So where do these insults and abuse return?”Akkosa got the picture. (quoted from How Buddha Handled Insults)
For me, this lesson also applied to other aspects beyond insults. I am often sensitive to labels that people might use to label me. But ultimately these are gifts from the outside. I can choose to either accept or refuse the labels, similar to the insults. I don't have to take all of them. 

Goenka says that this practice purifies the mind of negative thoughts and demolishes the ego. When he first wanted to try meditation for the sake of curing his migraine, his teacher said you should not approach meditation with this mentality. You should place the moral need for meditation first, and then the other benefits will come as well. Just as the sugar factories don't set out to produce molasses but gets molasses as a byproduct, one would also get the additional benefits in the end. In my case, I gained insight to certain problems regarding my friend circle in India as well as Germany. I used to think of myself as a generous, open-minded and easygoing person. But during meditation and reflections of one's ego, I realized that I had the illusion of open-mindedness. Many conflicts arose precisely because either I alone or both sides of the exchange did not want to listen or understand the other person's narratives. To be truly open-minded, it is not enough to be interested in some culture or the other. It is to be able to see precisely how the other person sees the world, however impossible it may be. Furthermore, oftentimes I receive more than I give. Goenka denounced how people say they love someone and they do certain things out of love, but actually it is out of love for oneself or the maintainance of the image of oneself rather than for other. This resembled much of what Kabir says in his poetry. Goenka told the story of King and Queen Malika during Buddha's time, who both meditated. Here is a textual version from the book Buddhist Women at the Time of The Buddha where I found from Access to Insight,
One day when the King was standing on the parapet of the palace with the Queen and was looking down upon the land, he asked her whether there was anyone in the world she loved more than herself. He expected her to name him, since he flattered himself to have been the one who had raised her to fame and fortune. But although she loved him, she remained truthful and replied that she know of no one dearer to herself than herself. Then she wanted to know how it was with him: Did he love anyone — possibly her — more than himself? Thereupon the King also had to admit that self-love was always predominant. But he went to the Buddha and recounted the conversation to find out how a Saint would consider this. 
The Buddha confirmed his and Mallika's statements:
I visited all quarters with my mind 
Nor found I any dearer than myself; 
Self is likewise to every other dear; 
Who loves himself may never harm another.

I have also found that my reactive faculties reduced along with the physical benefits. I started out with a sore back but after the meditation, despite prolonged sitting, I felt fine. Many other people also said that they have gained, most importantly, an insight to their own ego and how it treats others, and secondly, physical well being. I exchanged thoughts with the female group on the 10th day of our retreat, the day when noble silence ended. Linda, for example, reflected that she used to think her son was abnormally attracted to lofty thoughts like becoming a musician. She kept on trying to ask the question: Is it just a problem that happens to my son or also other people his age? Now she realized that she has problems in terms of her expectations. Elizabeth, my roommate for this duration, also exclaimed to me that sometimes it is not a difficult problem that requires you to solve it. Rather, your own perception has created this situation for yourself that seems like a problem. But sometimes the perception of the problem is often circumstantial and cannot be analyzed through an equation or searching answers on the web. One in fact is often addicted to analyzing the problem from a political or social perspective instead of realizing what is going on inside. Both Elizabeth and I had vivid dreams. On the second night I thought she was going to leave the place, but I could not ask at the time. One the last day she revealed that indeed she wanted to leave because she found it unexciting, but she is glad to have stayed. 

Jain statue in Gwalior, 2015
Goenka would often warn in his talks about the harmful aspects of creating anger and negative reactions because of a certain mental trace called "shankhara." This  shankhara occurs every time one generates craving, aversion or negativity and remains deep in the subconscious. It does not go away even during one's sleep. I thought that this could be the explanation for certain nightmares that also contain emotions that projected onto things in real life. The old fights become a source for new fights, and thus we multiply shankharas with our old habits. Through meditation, Goenka says, old and deep shankharas come to the surface and pass away because one is not generating new ones. 

Jain statue in Gwalior, 2015

The notion of achieving something beyond the mundane through meditation is also an important part of Sufism and Daoism. The Vipassana Research Institute, started by Goenka and followers of him, also edited many volumes gathering insights of people from other faiths.  One modern Jain practitioner, who came into contact with Vipassana, has also pointed out a similar triangular notion of moral qualities, meditation, and wisdom in the Jain tradition. 

Goenka warns people not to mix meditation techniques because it would be dangerous. But he respected different interpretations and had his own aphorism recorded in one of the Vipassana Research volumes:

"Hindu ho ya Baudha ho, Muslim o ya Jain
Jisane mana maila kiya wahi hua bechain
Hindu ho ya Baudha ho, Muslim o ya Jain
Jisane mana nirmala kiya waha bhoge sukh chain."

Rough translation:
Whether one is Buddhist, Muslim or Jain,
the one with an impure mind will suffer, and one with a pure mind will be happy.

Further Reading:


Vipassana Meditation Part I: The Practice

I recently went on a Vipassana meditation retreat organized by the Michigan Vipassana Association. The chief person that started the revival and popularization of this technique on the global stage is S. N. Goenka, a Burma-born Indian from a Hindu business community. He was successful in business and participated in what he would later call a “rat race.” After suffering from an intolerable migraine, he became interested in Vipassana meditation and the meditation surprisingly cured the migraine and inspired him spiritually. He became a long-time student of the Burmese Vipassana practitioner and monk Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971). U Ba Khin passed on to him the technique that he learned from previous Burmese teachers. U Ba Khin told Goenka one day in the 1970s to spread the practice of Vipassana in India. This technique later became further popularized in the west since the 1980s, and a sizable community formed in the Michigan area in the 21st century. 

Part of our walking areas, near a lake
In the 10 days, we did not have access to cell phones, electronics, or books. We maintained noble silence and did not speak to each other. The new students had to abide by the five precepts while the old students had to abide by eight precepts. We took refuge in the three jewels and meditated during the day. At night, we listened to Goenka’s English dharma talks made for a predominantly Western group like ours in 1991. He emphasized that this dharma is universal for finding the “Kingdom of heaven within” or the “brahmanic / nirvanic peace” within, and never used the word "Theravada," which is the name of the Burmese Buddhist tradition. The "universal" practice would needs sila (qualities of morals), samadhi (meditative concentration), and paññā in Pāli (or prajñā in Sanskrit, meaning wisdom). According to Wikipedia, paññā “is insight in the true nature of reality, namely primarily anicca (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction or suffering), anattā (non-self) and śūnyatā (emptiness).” There is the first type of paññā attained from listening to wise people and the second type of paññā attained from intellectual reasoning. Goenka emphasized that without experience one cannot attain the third kind of bhavana-maya paññā. Impermanence (anicca) can directly manifest itself through our meditation experiences. After the first three days of observing our respiration, as a way of sharpening the mind and concentration, we were told to observe our sensations. One sensation would arise and we instructed not to react. Whether it is an itching one, hurting one, or a temperature related sensation. While I did not follow this strictly and shifted here and there, I tried my best not to react most of the time and the sensations that usually would only go away with some kind of willful intervention went away by themselves. In this way we can understand how things are impermanent and we should not get ourselves too attached to the current situation and try to change it by reacting.

S.N. Goenka
Goenka says that these three qualities are like a a tripod and cannot work without the other. Some Indian traditions have tried to dispense the quality of sila and just work on samadhi, thereby achieving fantastical results in what Goenka would call “mind games.” That was exactly my issue with purely achieving samadhi: I had some clue of what samadhi felt like and what moral actions were, but very little idea of the next step of practice.

How did I gain this understanding prior to this retreat? My initial contact with meditation was also somewhat connected to Vipassana. My college friend Rachit’s grandparents had started practicing during their self-exploration years (presumably after retirement) and told him a lot about it. He found out that there were weekly meditation sittings in the interfaith center at our American college. So we started going regularly at first and then sporadically later. I stopped after finding the instructions a bit too superficial. The person conducting the meditation sittings, a learned professor, seemed to have a chip on his shoulder against his previous profession. He would often compare the superiority of Zen Buddhism against his previous knowledge field. I found this comparison unhelpful and thought I could just meditate at home and stopped attending the sittings circa 2013. For the most part, I didn't meditate, until this past week.

Even though Goenka was speaking to a western audience in the Vipassana dharma talks, he still has the Hindu traditions in mind. His deductions the obviously were results of engaging in debate with other Indians. So at times it also seemed that he had a chip on his shoulder. But since Vipassana was already very successfully influencing people of all faiths in India (see documentary Doing Vipassana, Doing Time), Goenka obviously attracted many assents from his polemics. He also used the Indian rhetorical form of 
story-telling commonly found in many Hindu religious discourses to his advantageI also found it beneficial for me to compare the different traditions. He was answering the questions I had about the contrasting traditions, such as Vedanta: If both Vedanta and Vipassana advocated for disillusionment, rational analysis, detachment and samadhi, then what is the difference? Goenka would say that sila (moral rectitude) is the difference. I think another understated difference was that the dharma could be practiced by a householder (male or female) who was busy with mundane tasks as well. In contrast, it was probably after the encounters with colonial missionaries did the Hindu reformers start to think about what to do in this life to attain a higher spiritual path other than asceticism and devotion. 

Goenka did not shy away from controversial stances: he would ridicule the promissory offerings done by the bhakti devotees or the people who would recite “Hare Ram” every day: “Why do the Gods need you to say their names? If I set up something and asked people to say ‘Hare Goenka’ everyday, what madness!” I had just watched two documentaries about Kabir to gain spiritual motivation, so I really appreciated some aspects of bhakti devotion. Still, I knew where his critiques lied: if the people just want to achieve some kind of benefit through recitation instead of emulation, it is not dharma. The bhakti singer Prahlad ji, a major character in the documentaries, wrestled with the same dilemma.
Prahlad: "Your place has more sagun (gods of form) worship. Yet you believe in nirgun (formless divinity)."

Interlocutor: "Yes."

Prahlad: "Why do you believe in nirgun?"

Interlocutor: "Nirgun is the truth."

Prahlad: "And sagun?" 

Interlocutor: "I don't believe in it."

Prahlad: "Sagun is not the truth? Why is sagun untrue?"

Interlocutor: "It's the trickery of the pundits! Of Brahmins.

Prahlad: "But set aside Brahmins for a moment. Sagun doesn't mean Brahmin. Sagun means that which is visible, has forms and features. Our body is too sagun. So is the body a lie?"

Interlocutor: ...

That was what one of my co-meditators pointed out as well: we observe a lot of our physical reactions and sensations, while at the same time we want to overtake the impermanent physical aspects. So which point do we know that we have attained realization? To answer that, the next post will discuss the experiential aspects and how different people had different meditation results. 

Further Reading:


History, Practice, and Theoretical Hegemony

In the process of discussing my paper on Muharram rituals with a very knowledgeable Muslim friend, he often remarked that I have the tendency to relativize aspects. I often say that certain statements are someone’s opinions rather than facts or the truth. I also tend to be fairly non-judgmental when listing these opinions in the paper. He in turn thought that there lacks a standard of or quest for truth in my research process. I thought that within academic discipline, one should have certain degree of suspense. But I also agreed with him to some extent, because as a non-Muslim, I do not share the same set of questions as many Muslims when studying Islamic rituals. The larger problem was that I found him to have little understanding of the purpose or methods of historical inquiry and told him so. In comparing different forms of rituals, history cannot say that this or that form is superior but rather it would just present the changes and link it to further larger trends. Furthermore, the rituals that have antiquity are not always even the “right” or “Orthodox” tradition judged by the believers themselves. The believers may often cite historical antiquity as a source, but they may not as well. I found that this passage I read today from Henry Corbin’s book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth addresses this tension we could not name ourselves:
Our authors suggest that if the past were really what we believe it to be, that is, completed and closed, it would not be the grounds of such vehement discussions. They suggest that all our acts of understanding are so many recommencements, re-iterations of events still unconcluded. Each one of us, willy-nilly, is the initiator of events in "Hurqalya," whether they abort in its hell or bear fruit in its paradise. (Prologue, 1960)

 The difficulty of posing a dialogue between History and practice can be gauged by this analysis. What historians see as a relic of the past cannot be accepted by the people who continue to view the Shi‘a schism as a political event that forms the “grounds of such vehement discussions.”

Jaipur during Muharram, 1983. Photo by Sudhir Kasliwal

My friend also charged that I do not cite Shi‘a authors in the discussions regarding Shi‘a faith and practices, which partly invokes the age-old debate between who has the right over interpretation of experience and knowledge: the practitioner or the theorist. Recently I have been reading the book The Cracked Mirror which explores this debate. The discussion highlights the definition of experience is crucial. Scholar Sundar Sarukkai notes how Indian philosophers, unlike Cartesian thinkers, do not distinguish between knowledge and experience. Once one accepts this challenge, it is difficult to say whether a unique experience should be the superior basis for the truth pertaining to that experience over a kind of “knowledge.” Both experience and knowledge can be first-hand and true, if we can attain an common denominator of what is true. But the problem is that nowadays, academics don’t necessarily have one. So experience often trumps knowledge. 

Sarukkai also used the ideas of Jürgen Habermas to address the moral burden of theory proposed by scholar Dr. Gopal Guru. Guru has noted the phenomenon of theoretical hegemony, in which some groups are seen as data (people of color and Dalits) while other dominant groups are seen as more theoretical (white men and Brahmins). Habermas’ hopes that theory can contribute to liberal democracy to prevent the rise of neo-Nazis. Sarukkai interprets Habermas’ need for “moral responsibility” into his “guilt” as a post-Holocaust German. He does not mention how post-Holocaust Jewish scholars have responded to Habermas, which would be very interesting to read. In contrast, Gopal Guru would not find “guilt” helpful in the Indian situation for changing hegemonic discourse: once Dalits understand the importance of regaining academic resources and theoretical capabilities, then the process would require more assertion from Dalits. I also agree that while many upper caste scholars have recognized the need for other theories articulated by “Others,” the effectiveness of noblisse oblige is questionable.

Another friend, who is an anthropologist, has noted yesterday on how anthropology as a discipline now accepts more theories from the non-Western “Others.” She prides on the fact that anthropologists are closer to non-Western “Others” than other disciplines. She notes how it is very difficult to engage with academics on a theoretical basis if one continues to cite ethnographic data to refute the theory. One should rather engage in formulating one’s own theory and analytic frameworks. But in my experience, the resistance to learn about examples from “the field” or an alien context from scholars of all backgrounds (West and non-West) is acute. I can only hope that this kind of attitude does not extend to “alien” theories as well. I also questioned the effectiveness of this approach, especially after reading parts of The Cracked Mirror. So far I have not learned theory in academia based on Indian / South Asian concepts. Another historian present chimed in on how Subaltern Studies could represent a new kind of South Asian theory, but after I retorted, he also self-deprecatingly said that his comment was made in jest. There are attempts in China to formulate theories, but I have not read them in detail to comment.

In general, I tend to agree with Habermas’ idea that everyone should share the moral burden of interpretation rather than attribute that one certain group has more moral or theoretical authority. But the problem of theoretical dominance cannot be undone through moral exhortation. Brahmin / “White” Guilt cannot be the only source that propels the rise of theoretical interpretation by “Others.” So while I may cite Shi‘a authors on their observations of Muharram, perhaps it will still be years to come before I actually read or encounter a Shi‘a theory on religious studies or rituals partly due to the hegemony that excludes these theories.


Islam, Legitimacy, and Judgment Day

Yesterday I got into a heated discussion regarding the legitimacy of government while introducing David Graeber's ideas regarding anarchism and his possible academic course on direct actionThe discussion also veered towards the question what should a person do while living under what he considers oppression. My interlocutors were male and they were wondering about this. We used the word zulm for oppression since it seemed more suitable to both contemporary and historical situations. (It can also mean wrongdoing, darkness, and inequality.) Sometimes they thought I was too idealistic. But I countered that it is also idealistic in the same sense to stop eating a brand of so-called halal chicken once you find that the chickens were not treated humanely, as one of the interlocutors did. He threw away his 5 euro stock of chicken after learning about the factory's treatment of chicken and also dissuaded his roommate from eating the chicken as well.

I learned that that in one interlocutor's idea of Islam, there are three responses to zulm: 1st option is that you engage in "direct action," 2nd option is that you voice your opinion against zulm, and 3rd you acknowledge it in your heart. The 3rd option is the least you can do. (I have yet to find the text for backing this up.) 

During this discussion I sketched out a broad scope of why certain political scientists and historians are interested in the history of political formation and sources of legitimacy. Scholars of Islamic history see a promising division of power between the ulema (scholars of Muslim religious law) and the king. But why did it not lead to a parliamentary reform like in Europe, where the aristocrats also limited the power of the king? I still have not read enough to cite authors, but I know that scholars of Iranian Islamic history have strove to figure out what role the ulema played in politics, e.g., Michael M. J. Fischer (2003) and Said Amir Arjomand (1989). Graeber said in his talk at the Gottingen Literature Festival that the state's legitimate use of the monopoly of violence is derived from the law; the law's legitimacy is derived from the constitution; the constitution is written (in the case of certain countries) from a violent popular revolution. So the question bothering many activists and social scientists is: how does one actually distinguish which revolution is the "right" one? And rather not a mob or one that could be usurped by forces of zulm

The question of Mahdi (the Expected One) came up since I said that this idea can be used for political ends, such as power consolidation or gaining legitimacy. Scholars also find that the Mahdi is still used to challenge political authority (Eickelman, 1998). Islam shares aspects of the eschatology with Christianity, such as that there will be a Day of Judgement. But prior to the 2nd coming of Christ, the Islamic eschatology usually sees that the Mahdi would come as a religio-political ruler prior to the Day of Judgment. Different sects in Islam are disputed over the identity of the Mahdi. The Twelver Shi'as, for example, see their Mahdi as the hidden Twelfth Imam who will come out of hiding. Some Sunnis accept there would be a Mahdi but do not endow him with as much divine authority. I quoted the following from The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism:
The Safavid dynasty in Iran was truly an apocalyptic dynasty from the beginning. Shah Isma'il (r. 1501-24), the founder of the dynasty, made messianic claims (as well as possibly even of divinity). Prior to the appearance of the Safavids Iran had been majority Sunni, but through the use of a charismatic blend of Sufism and Shi'ism, in some cases making extreme claims about the authority of the dynasty, the Safavids managed to convert most of the country by the middle of the seventeebth century. A key moment for the dynasty happened under the young Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1588-1629) at the turn of the Uslamic millennium in 1591-91, when he suppressed the hitherto powerful Kizilbash group, which had been the backbone of messianic beliefs and the most fervent supporters of the Safavids. Thereafter, like the Ottomans, the Safavids moved away from the use of apocalyptic and messianic themes.
The same section of this book mentions that the Mughal ruler Akbar also used this theme when creating his "heterodox" version of Islam, Din-i Ilahi. He was even given the title of "Lord of time."

Cited in John F. Richards The Mughal Empire: The new Cambridge history of India:" In the RN 50 (1604 A.D.), these Nur ala Nur ("Light unto Light") gold coins (10.9g) were struck. The front says: "By the stamp of the emperor Akbar gold becomes bright" / "On this gold the emperor's name is Light (upon Light)." mint location (Agra). (source:cngcoins.com)

I read again in Sanjay Subramanyam's article Connected Histories, where he ponders on how these ideas form similar frameworks for comparative history and how messianism played a crucial role in Akbar's court transition--
Akbar is reported to have asked if Muhammad was mentioned in the Gospel, to which [Portuguese Jesuit Antonio] Monserrate responded by insisting that he was not, being a false prophet. Monserrate now writes that Akbar wondered aloud, somewhat disingenuously, 'Surely Muhammad cannot be he who is to appear at the end of the world as the adversary of all mankind (that is he whom the Musalmans calls Dijal)', the reference being to the idea of the masih al-dajjal, the Anti-Christ who appears in some Islamic legends as riding on an ass at the end of time.
This incident, a trivial one, begins to assume significance when set in its wider regional and supra-regional context. For a millenarian conjuncture operated over a good part of the Old World in the sixteenth century and was the backdrop to such discussions as that between Akbar and Monserrate, which took place just eleven years before the year 1000 A.H (1591-92). This was a time when many Muslims in southern and western Asia, as well as North Africa  awaited signs that the end of the world was nigh, and when the Most Catholic Monarch, Philip II of Spain, equally wrote gloomily: 'If this is not the end of the world, I think we must be very close to it; and, please God, let it be the end of the whole world, and not just the end of Christendom.'
As a response to my challenge, regarding how easily certain people can usurp the idea of the Mahdi, one of my interlocutors said that there is a hadith that says if there is a statement that predicts the precise Day of Judgment, that statement is certainly false. He went on to list different ways of testing the veracity of hadiths. That is a very intriguing topic that I will definitely read more about. My interlocutor said that there should not be a rejection of religion from politics entirely, because then that would be assenting to the rule of Chengiz (Genghis, meaning, the rule of the sword). He sees that justice is the only measure of a true Islamic polity, rather than the cultural authenticity, such as wearing traditional dress or not. But then for me the discussion gets kind of caught in a loop because in his ideal world, an Islamic regime would automatically be just. But there is no possibility under any other regime or anarchist collective consensus for the same result. So now, despite forms of zulm, it is better to just wait and see.


Contested Sites of History in Delhi and Hyderabad

Sometimes you find famous historical sites from a tourist guide and other times you realize how historically significant a site you visited was by doing reading. The latter often comes as surprises and it recently happened to me twice. I am currently researching on urban spaces and Muslim identity in India for a term paper.

Two separate articles mentioned a shrine near Mandi House, Delhi, and a Hindu temple under Charminar in Hyderabad. The shrine of Baba Sayyid Nanhe Mian Chishti was very famous for thwarting government attempts of demolition. (See article here: Jinnealogy Everyday life and Islamic theology in post-Partition Delhi by Anand Vivek Taneja) Anwar Sabri, the old caretaker of this mazar, took care of the place since the 1970s. He claims that

there have been no accidents at the Mandi House circle, where seven roads come together. The municipal authorities often gave him trouble, not wanting him or the grave here, and he has spent at least one night in jail. But the baba appeared in a dream to an engineer with the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, who was planning a “beautification” of the area that would led to the demolition of the grave to make way for a fountain. After the baba appeared to him in a dream, the engineer begged his forgiveness, moved the fountain in his plans to accommodate the grave, and even presented the baba with bags of cement to make the grave pakka, permanent... Many of the devotees, including many actors and staff from the nearby National School of Drama, have been coming here for the past thirty years, Anwar Sabri says. The baba has granted the wishes of many.
 Photo credits: Anand Vivek Taneja

When I was reading about the shrine, I kept on thinking whether or not I had seen it. Finally, I saw the picture on the next page and had the a-ha! moment. It was indeed the one I saw. Suspense was cleared. At that time, Deepak and I bought some snacks to eat before the main theater event. I asked whether or not we should sit on the ledge (where the yellow and black stripes are painted). I didn’t notice the shrine behind us, I just wanted to grab the nearest clean place I could sit. He noticed and said we could not because it was a holy site for Muslims. After reading the amazing story, I wondered if Deepak knew about it.
Picture I took at Mandi House while waiting for the play to start. The circle connects six big roads and one small road; it understandably attracts a lot of traffic and it is said that ever since the shrine was taken care by Mr. Sabri there have been no accidents. 
I also noticed the Hindu temple after visiting Charminar in December, 2015. This architecture is known for its Islamic legacy from the times of the Nawabs. I was a bit surprised to find a Hindu temple near it. Aesthetically, the two did not mesh together. But many visitors of Charminar were Hindu and paid their respects at the site. I thought this was probably an example of secular India, in which people of different religions want their religion represented everywhere. I read about this temple later in Dr. Zehra Fareen Parvez’s thesis: “the makeshift Hindu temple that was illegally constructed at the floor of the Charminar.” She explains that this construction was exchanged for Muslims’ unwritten right to use amplifiers for call of prayers or other announcements in Hyderabad. “Although amplification is banned in the city, there is a mutual understanding between the police and Muslim neighborhoods that the law will not be enforced.” I chuckled at this peculiar but quintessentially Indian arrangement. There are also people who falsely claimed that this temple existed before 1960s and clashes occurred in 2012 over this issue.
Bhagyalakshmi Temple which started as a shrine. Photo taken by Ayush Nadimpalli
To quote an anonymous Quora answer,
The Archeological Survey of India, in a [Right to Information] reply, finally conceded that the controversial Bhagya Laxmi Mandir, adjacent to historical Charminar is a recently constructed ‘unauthorized’ structure. Claims of this temple existing before 1960's is also rubbished by the following picture taken from The Hindu archives of 1957.
 I have much more respect for the Archeological Survey of India after reading about this dispute. The scholar in the article about the Delhi shrine lamented the lack of care for Muslim shrines and restricted access to the ASI files. But given that in India history is everywhere, involving lively debates (and sometimes physical fights), it is indeed a very tough task to treat all of them with due discretion.