The Western literati and media have again given a literary ring to the dispute arising out of Rushdie’s novel. Pakistan-born Lord Nazir, who was present in a TV show, was saying that the title “sir” is given to those who accomplish something of merit. But Rushdie, he said, has done no such thing to deserve it. The young English critic who sat next to him in the show said that great writers had always faced the censor problem, including Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence. Then Nazir was asked if he had read Rushdie or he was criticizing Rushdie without having read him. As it happened, Nazir had not read him. This obviously created an occasion for a laugh insinuating perhaps that the Muslim mind is easily irritable and moves into the agitation mould without even taking the trouble of reading what it considers to be objectionable.
In every human language there had been a tradition of ridicule and insult. In the Prophet’s time the kufar (nonbelievers) would insult the Prophet and his companions wrapped in seemingly literary form. But they were honest enough not to call insult as literature: they would not name it as a literary masterpiece. The insult poetry is part of the history of the Arabic language but it never enjoyed the exalted status of high literature neither than nor now. The West is however unique on the point of being grotesque that it does not call insult as insult but equates it with literature. This shows that in insulting the Prophet (‘alayhi as-salam) the West is far ahead of the Arabian nonbelievers. Ironic it may sound, the West still insists on projecting itself as civil and erudite.
The modern West has fought two World Wars along with a bloody history of intra feud among themselves. During these wars, European poets and writers have written a lot. Even in a cataclysmic experience like war, none of the great writers or poets has given weight to their war-centered creativity — they just pushed it aside as transient literature born out of a national necessity. But ironically so impulsive they are in insulting and ridiculing the Prophet and Islam that lately they knighted an insulter like Rushdie and insist that his is a high literature.
Doubtless in the West big writers have faced censor; they have also suffered prosecution in the courts. D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chaterley’s Lover can be cited as an example. But that it had a context must not be ignored.
In any culture or tradition a creative genius has two kinds of relationship – either he belongs to the tradition and admires it or he alienates himself from it for he pulsate with an urge to find a new world of meanings into it.
When the Lawrence Lady Chaterley’s Lover first saw the print it created uproar for he sought to challenge Victorian morality; his work was dubbed as an exercise into rebellions sex. Strangely enough Lawrence was greatly influenced by the marriage in the East as opposed to the Western concept of love which he thought was shallow and thus contemptible.
To him it was important that in order to relieve itself of shallow marriages the West should seek inspiration from the sex concept in the East. Lawrence’s novel starts with this sentence that since we live in an age of decadence we shy to admit it. Without any effort to trumpet it, this was a civilizational collision well before Samuel Huntington’s birth. Lawrence wore a troubled conscience yearning for change.
Now in this context there are two primary questions in relation to Rushdie. Did he write his fiction work as a Muslim? If the answer is yes, then Rushdie and his supporters have to prove that Muslims in the past have given expression to such kind of satanic garbage and that it was celebrated as literature. Besides, Rushdie and his supporters have to show that occasionally he has praised certain aspects of Islamic civilization in his writings, establishing that within a tradition some parts of it invite his admiration while some other aspects cause repulsion in him. I am sure there is no such streak of respect and admiration in his writings. This means he has no longing to be in the Islamic tradition and since he is out of it, he surely does not understand it, either. Thus, when he does not understand this tradition, then on what moral grounds he arrogates to himself the right to criticize it. Here, we must understand that this is primarily an issue of literature and not of politics, economics or sociology.
Rushdie is standing by choice outside the Muslim tradition. That means he has deprived himself of the right to rebel from it. He is just a viewer who has neither the justification nor the vantage from within. For him, it is impossible to praise or criticize the tradition. Even in other matters, for example cricket, a person who has no knowledge of how cricket is played would not dare to have even the pretension of being its commentator. Who would accept him? Thus, if this is true for cricket, then how can we acknowledge Rushdie as an observer of Islamic history and its tradition?
There is a couplet from Urdu poet Mir which says:
Mir kay din-o-madhhab ku tum
pochtay kiya hu
inn nay tu qashqa kayncha
dayr main baytha
kab ka tarak Islam kiya.
That is: why do you want to know about Mir’s religion? Long ago he discarded Islam, painted red on his forehead and sat in the temple.
The same Mir says:
Kufr kuch chaiyay Islam ki
khidmat kay liyay.
That is: you need to have
the presence of kufr (disbelief) to serve
the cause of Islam.
Mir’s first couplet gives expression to collective experience. And even if we do not take it in the sense of collective experience Mir is telling us that Hinduism has influenced his heart, and that his inside and outside are changing. His second line means that my Islam is strong enough to counter the threat from kufr. Rather it is so strong that kufr has cowered before it. Thus he suggests that kufr should be pumped up so that his Islam stands out with all its splendours, its nobility and greatness. Here, it is important to know that both these experiences are interlocked and serve as a pointer to his deep association with a tradition in a meaningfully way. Without association nothing is of substance. We must remember that the whole bulk of literature in the world is produced from two existential feelings: one association and second dissociation. The latter gives birth to insult and not literature. The great writers in the West know about it. Their literature is replete with these two examples. But when it comes to assaulting Islam, the great ones in the West muffle their conscience receding into a deafening silence, while their “pygmies” continue telling lies.