Jilani Kamran – Profile

Herald (Annual), January 1997

The most important aspect of Jilani Kamran’s personality is his worldview. Here is a man who takes a positive pride in his religious identity – almost to the extent of chauvinism – and speaks the language of tolerance, love and Sufism. The combination is remarkable. Whether you speak to him or whether you take up one of his books, you will find your mind and emotions being constantly manipulated by a master who knows how to affect both – or either – and does so.

“I was once asked (by a foreigner) how I justified the making of Pakistan,” he begins to relate in his polite, measured and markedly Punjabi manner of speaking. “I told him that I would give a different reason from whatever he might have read in books. I then asked him how he defined ‘independence’ in a colonial set-up. He gave up. I said, independence in a colonial set-up means that the colonialist should return power to those from whom they had taken it. In the subcontinent, the British had snatched power from the Muslim king of Delhi – they were in a hurry to get rid of him only because they understood that as long as he was there, Queen Victoria could not be proclaimed Empress of India”. Kamran’s argument, therefore, was that the British should have left the whole of India in the hands of the Muslims as a gesture of their own withdrawal.

Several years later, Kamran expanded this argument to form the basis of his book Quaid-e-Azam Aur Azadi ki Tehrik (1976). In that book he rules out the various popular explanations for the birth of Pakistan (such as the antagonism of the Hindus, the two-nation theory, and so on) as insufficient. He goes on to say that the Muslims of India were only demanding their right to sovereignty. “We were rulers before the British came; we must rule after they leave,” was the psychology behind the Great Divide. Jilani Kamran’s own consciousness is a part of it.

This type of chauvinism could have easily destroyed a lesser intellectual. On the contrary, it becomes a source of creative energy in Jilani Kamran. Perhaps his saving grace is his background of Sufism and a critical approach towards Muslim history. Pick up any of his over 15 books (covering history, education, criticism, culture, poetry and Sufism), read any 10 pages in sequence and it soon becomes apparent that his roots are buried deep in the past. Just as a tree draws nourishment from the soil, he derives inspiration from tradition. Goethe once said, “Anybody who does not draw upon 3000 years of civilization is living hand-to-mouth.” Jilani Kamran most certainly is not.

A long time ago, Muslims ruled the world. Among them were the finest warriors, architects, rulers, poets, lovers, Sufis and peacemakers. While the war cries of the soldiers died out with the passage of time, the lyrics of the poets, lovers and Sufis and the messages of the peace-makers have been passed down through the medium of ink and paper. Ibn-e-Arabi and Hallaj are foremost amongst those heroes who communicate daily with Jilani Kamran through this medium. Abi Namr, his best known poem, is a testimony to his affiliation with these voices of bygone days.

Back in the fifties, he was a student of English literature in Edinburgh. His claims such as “we once ruled the world” were not always received passively by his British friends – who themselves had been relieved of such great responsibilities only recently. “If the Muslims of the golden age were such world conquerors, how come their creative writings only display masochism and depression?” they asked Kamran.

An intellectual from just the previous generation would have been content to point out that most of the more depressing poems were written in the period following the fall of Baghdad (AD 1258), and not before. Or they would have pointed out that works like Tarjuman-ul-Ashwaque of Ibn-e-Arabi (1164-1240) served both as an inspiration as well as model for poems such as Roman de la Rose (c. 11280) of de Lorris – one of the central poems in all European literature. However, the Muslim intellectual of the fifties was as a rule not apologetic. Likewise, Jilani Kamran took the opportunity to compose a fresh poem in Urdu, which could capture the process of transition from Tarjuman to Roman de la Rose.

It would be useful here to relate the genesis of Abi Namr in some detail which would help reveal how the past does not just provide Jilani Kamran with nourishment, but intoxicates him.

Writing about the different world views of the older poets (up to the period of Ghalib) and the new ones (the generation that came after Iqbal) he says:

Right from the days of Sultan Bahoo up to the times of Ghulam Fareed, the relationship between the human being and the universe remained a well-established one. These ancestors of ours sang about the woes of this world so that they may find grace in the hereafter. They were lucky, for they lived in the age of Faith. They were certain that their faith is true, the hereafter is a reality, and the sins may be foreign on the shifa’t  (intermediary) of the Prophet (peace be upon him). If you ask me, things have changed now. We have moved out of the mental atmosphere of the age of faith.

The world, which was born out of the rationalism of Sir Syed and the re-presentation of Islam as a code of life on earth is quite different from the world of the past centuries. Today, when we read about the angels, our mind starts wandering around to bring a (logical) interpretation of this notion. As regards the miracles, the meanings have changed, both of shaq al sadr (the opening up of the Prophet’s breast at age four) as well as shaq al qamr (the breaking up of the moon at the command of the Prophet). The biographers of today have diverted from the path of Ibne Hisham. In their eagerness to provide practical guidance from the life of the Prophet, they have done away with the beautiful aureole which was more appealing to the poetic and the emotional sides of the reader – such as the stories about the trees and stones singing praises of the Holy Prophet.

He goes on to state that:

I am quite willing to agree that some of these things were illogical. Yet the point remains that all these things were attractive, and served a double-fold purpose. Firstly, they appealed to the human emotions and therefore they were more effective to the listeners, and the readers. Secondly, they provide a kind of poetic imagination which cannot even be understood today. The current stream of thought has not only taken away our ability to see beyond the purely physical. By focusing on the problems of this earth alone it has, in a way, turned the entire universe into a province of the earth.” (Translated from Nai Nazm kay Taqazay – 1965, 1985).

As a social philosopher, Jilani Kamran takes it upon himself to reconstruct the faded picture of the age of faith for his readers living in the modern world. He does this best in the book Hamara Adabi aur Fikri Safar (1987). Surely this is one of the most important books ever written in Pakistan, and comparable with the works of international contemporaries like Hossein Nasr. Some of the topics covered here are the ‘literary visions’ of the early Muslims and other literary traditions, social and religious aspects of Iqbal, the issues of spirituality as they appear before modern society and a commentary on the human being.

This leads us to one major question: how does Jilani Kamran feel as a citizen of he old as well as new worlds at the same time? The answer is not simple. One is even tempted to define him as a split personality, torn between opposite forces of two different times. At least it seems so when one compares his poems with his critical writings.

As a poet he identified himself with that odd hybrid of the fifties who used to call themselves the “New Poets” of Urdu. The hallmark of the New Poetry was a new language that should present meaning with a sort o mathematical accuracy. This was indeed very strange company for a traditionalist like Jilani Kamran. But there he was!

“When I began writing poems,” he says to me after stating that it was in Edinburgh, 1956. “I said that we want such poetry which was neither being written in Delhi, nor in Lucknow, nor in Hyderabad (Deccan), nor in Bombay, nor in Bhopal. And we wanted to write in a language which was different from theirs. So we started the movement called Nai Nazm ki Tehreek (The Movement for New Poetry) in 1959. The poems we created were copied there (in India). Our language was different … In our poems, language was used without rules. The language was simplified. Then there came Sufism, symbolism … we created a different kind of poetry.”

But when asked who else was included amongst the New Poets, Jilani Kamran dismisses the query with a terse “ask the critics…” The critics will certainly tell us that one of the foremost of this set was Iftikhar Jalib, who incidentally received the dedication of Nai Nazm kay Taqazay.

Kamran the poet, then, seems quite different (if not indifferent, occasionally) from Kamran the critic. The poet writes in a language “which follows no rules” the critic on the other hand, tries to persuade his fellows that their problem is represented in the ancient line from the Bible: “O God! Why hast thou left me?” and it is therefore nonsense to insist upon using a secular idiom to describe the loneliness of the modern human being. While the poet appears eager to sever links with Delhi and Lucknow, the critic hails Ghalib as “one of our own” and makes it the subject of his monograph, Ghalib ki Tehzibi Shakhsiyat.

The two minds of Kamran have been entangled at least on one occasion. When Abi Namr was published, he was accused of some sort of pan-Islamism, and even of desiring the return of Arab imperialism over Muslim society. To this he came back bluntly (he often does that): “I do not find myself a stranger to the intellectual and literary tradition of the Arabs. The story of poetry can only be told without including geographical boundaries. However, certain friends prefer to take the road which leads to Mathura and Ujjain. “The self-contradictory nature of this statement is quite reflective of the contradictions in the mind of the person himself. Viewed in the perspective of everything else he has to offer us, these contradictions only make him appear as more honest, committed and intense and someone who must be read if we want to find out more about ourselves and about our world.

“Our intellectuals today have all the frames of reference with them, except that of Islam. They have their own yardsticks which is applied on the past in a different manner by each one of them – Mubarak Ali, Mubashir Hasan, Mahdi Hasan, Qazi Javed, and so on. I say this: individuals with very many yardsticks only bring a fragmentation rather than an understanding of reality. If we accept that our being Muslims is the basis for our identity, and perceive our future in the historical perspective, then we have to go back at least up to Iqbal, and take him as our guide. For he studied religion in a time when he had no vested interest.”

The inclusion of Jilani Kamran amongst the scholars of Iqbaliyat is fortunate. Unlike many others he is able to step aside now and then, and look upon his guide with a critical insight. “Iqbal’s views about women were based upon the ethics of his times. Moreover he was preoccupied with fears regarding female creativity. Iqbal feared that if women are allowed to use their creative faculties in other domains, they will cease to be good mothers. Today we can see that this is not the case.”

Finding a way to reconcile Iqbal with Ibn-e-Arabi was even more difficult – Iqbal was a die-hard opponent of Ibn-e-Arabi’s pantheism. “Pantheism give you the concept of a personal God, and this is truly the finest idea you can achieve. Iqbal, however, had to oppose it in his own times as pantheism could not suite the self-determination of the Muslims in a decadent society.” Jilani Kamran would personally recommend a combination of Ibn-e-Arabi’s pantheism with Iqbal’s philosophy of ijtehad – and then he would add by way of explanation: “We are fortunate that we can choose from the best of both worlds – because we are free!”

This interview was conducted in Lahore in 1996. Jilani Kamran passed away in Lahore on 22 February 2003.

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