The enlightenment of Waris Mir

With increasing onslaught against the freedom of expression in Pakistan, it is imperative that we remember those who held the torch of sanity under the most horrifying periods in Pakistan’s history, especially under the military dictatorships of General Ziaul Haq and the self-appointed Field Marshal General Ayub Khan.

In some of my previous columns such as ‘Journalism: An alternative history’ published in these pages in October 2019, and then ‘Journalism and textbooks’ published in July this year, we discussed some merits and demerits of journalism in Pakistan. Here we take a look at one of the most prominent journalism teachers in Pakistan and a columnist who, during General Zia’s dictatorship, challenged his bigoted interpretation of Islam. His columns went much beyond the ‘here and now’ of the 1980s and discussed the implications and ramifications which we have experienced during the past four decades.

Waris Mir was born in Sialkot in 1938 and did his Master’s in journalism at Punjab University in 1962. He joined Nawa-e-Waqt as a columnist and magazine editor. He also wrote columns for Daily Mashriq. You may argue that these were fairly conservative and jingoistic newspapers. Yes, Waris Mir did start as a nationalist but his real transformation started when he joined the department of journalism at the University of Punjab. As the head of the department, he interacted with and taught hundreds of students the nuts and bolts of journalism.

Waris Mir was one of the few journalists who opposed the military action in East Pakistan in 1971; much later the government of Bangladesh acknowledged his bravery and appreciated his steadfastness in those trying times. But he is best known for his relentless column-writing against General Zia’s military dictatorship. He had to pay a heavy price for his bold stance and was put under so much pressure that in 1987 – when he was just 49 – a massive heart attack took his life. But before his departure, he managed to leave substantial written material that is still useful in today’s Pakistan.

This is because the dark-ages that General Zia initiated in Pakistan seem to be never-ending. Here we will discuss just two of his books: ‘Hurriyat-e-Fikr ke Mujahid’ (Crusaders for freedom of thought) and ‘Kiya Aurat Aadhi Hai?’ (Is woman just half a person?) The first is a collection of his columns that appeared in daily Jang in Urdu from 1985 to 1987. ‘Jang Publishers’ compiled and printed this collection in 1989. These columns reflect his deep knowledge and wisdom, which not many journalists carry in Pakistan. He emerges as a major standard-bearer of enlightenment in Pakistani journalism.

Waris Mir knew so much about multiple fields and disciplines that his writings are suffused with his erudition. In the Pakistan of the 1980s, when General Zia was trying to take Pakistan back to the Dark Ages, Waris Mir talked to his readers from a dispassionate vantage point. He tried his best to disabuse his audiences of ignorance and romanticism. His columns are full of references to those crusaders of Islamic history who fought with their quills rather than with swords. Those who expressed their ideas risking their lives. The rulers and society of that time punished such philosophers and thinkers but they continued their work.

Waris Mir discusses writers from Al-Kindi (Alkindus) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to Mutazila (al-mutazilah – the rationalist school of Islamic theology) and ‘Ikhwan-us-Safa’ (the brethren of purity or sincerity). He explains how the Asharis (al-Ashariyah – an orthodox dogmatic school) arrayed themselves against any enlightenment and prevented the spread of influence from Mutazila and Ikhwan-us-Safa. Waris Mir also highlights the role played by Jamaluddin Afghani and Muhammad Abduh and how the last Ottoman Caliph tried to suppress all dissent and precipitated the decline and fall of his empire. In the book’s preface Prof Karrar Hussain writes:

“Waris Mir was a conscientious and enlightened citizen, intellectual, journalist, and teacher. He used his pen to fight for his people. To him, being progressive was not like adhering to some dogma or belonging to a sect; rather, it entailed dynamic and vibrant thinking with correct grasp of objective conditions. Waris Mir strived to promote self-awareness in people with an understanding of their rights to freedom from destitute and exploitation, from ignorance and poverty, from all types of imperialism and superstition. He stood for autonomy and promoting creativity in wider culture.”

Perhaps there can be no better definition of a progressive, and Waris Mir was an embodiment of this. In one of his articles titled ‘Haath humarey qalam huey’ (‘Our hands have been chopped off’), he writes: “In a nation that is declining and servile not only government and politics but also ideas stifle; rather than moving forward they run backwards’. (Page 18)

Waris Mir makes it clear that Muslim societies reached their pinnacle when they created an enabling environment for knowledge to prosper. In such conditions, creative and iconoclastic thinkers lived, worked and challenged established ideas and dared to differ with the rulers and their preferred ideologies.

These writers resisted official attempts to mold society according to the diktats of the state. In another article titled ‘Tehreek-e-Khirad Afrozi’ (‘The Enlightenment movement’), he explains how rationalist thinking helped Muslims nurture creative personalities, philosophers, and scientists. Waris Mir had read widely, which is why he was not impressed by Imam Ghazali. Rather, he quotes one of the opponents of Ghazali, Abu al-Waleed Tartushi, as saying that in the end Ghazali left everything behind and aligned with the mystics. He mixed philosophical ideas and the riddles of Mansur Hallaj with religion and condemned the scholastic theologians (Mutakallmin).

Waris Mir writes that when Ghazali wrote ‘Ahya-ul-uloom’ (The book of knowledge) he lacked a full command of mysticism (Tasawwuf) resulting in a complete failure for Ghazal who ended up stuffing his books with subjective traditions. That’s how we see Waris Mir preferring al-Farabi (Alpharabius), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and al-Razi (Rhazes) over Ghazali. Farabi, Sina, and Razi believed in the supremacy of reason, but that was not the case with Ghazali who mocked reason and ridiculed rationality. For Ghazali, the only adequate or true ilm (knowledge) was ilm ud deen (knowledge of religion).

Standing by thinkers such as Ibn Sina, Waris Mir writes. “Ibn Sina determined the principles of logical thinking by stressing on the importance of experiments as well as reasoning. He opened new avenues for research in rational knowledge and science. Farabi’s religious philosophy is almost an echo of the Greek philosophy, and after him it was only Ibn Sina who had not only imbibed Greek philosophy but also used an elaborate system of analysis, rational thinking and understanding.” (Page 27). Waris Mir has also specifically discussed Muslim philosophers and scientists, with a particular reference to Ikhwan-us-Safa.

“In the writings and speeches of our scholars, we seldom notice any mention of ‘Ikhwan-us-Safa’, even though this was the movement for enlightenment which ultimately paved the way for various revolutions in Europe, especially the French Revolution. ‘Ikhwan-us-Safa’ was a secret society in the last decades of the 10th century, compiling an encyclopedia of rational knowledge in various fields. That was the time when governments and leaders of religious sects in Muslim societies had habitually launched movements against philosophers, scientists, and writers, forcing them to work in secret or underground, for fear of being targeted by the fanatics.”

Waris Mir tells us that the Ikhwan was not a sectarian outfit; they simply wanted Muslims to embrace rational knowledge and thinking nurtured by the likes of Farabi, Kindi, and Sina.

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