Essay: “What is it that rattles?” – On the autonomy of ideas

Syed Nomanul Haq

An article published in Dawn newspaper on 24th August 2014 speaks about the exchange of ideas between civilisations over a long period of history. Fantastic educating stuff.

Syed Nomanul Haq is Professor and Adviser of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.

“What is it that rattles?” – On the autonomy of ideas

One ought to be thankful to postmodernists for making us aware of the fact, at once oppressive and liberating, that we live largely in a constructed world — a world that is on most counts ontologically empty.

Before going any further, let me sew a historical patch to this: postmodernism, insofar as it is a particular genre of a complex and rigorous analytical attitude, is not restricted to those who in the standard narrative are called “postmodernists,” living in our own times, and of European provenance. This attitude is to be found in other world literatures too, especially Arabic, Persian, and Urdu literatures; and it lurks about way before the 20th century. It was Shakespeare, not Jacques Derrida, who exclaimed that the best poem lies most; and it was not Michel Foucault, but Ghalib’s mentor Mirza Bedil, who said what seems to be an absurdity — “good poetry has no meaning,” he once wrote, no fixed meaning that is, but a multiplicity of meanings that can even be mutually contradictory.

But back to our constructed world. One recalls that Foucault had demonstrated that many of our contemporary operative notions, concepts, and ideas are manufactured — and that they are manufactured in a workshop of power structures. The modern (better: Victorian) notion of sexuality, for example, is the topic of an extensive Foucauldian work. Drawing a parallel between modern control of criminality and modern control of sexuality, the French postmodernist observes that making the latter, like the former, an object of allegedly scientific discipline, is an act that offers both knowledge and domination of the object. And here we learn something highly intriguing — that this control is two-pronged and reflexive: Foucault shows us that, on the one hand, control is exercised by means of others’ knowledge of individuals. But then, on the other, individuals consider the norms laid down by the sciences of sexuality to be fixed and true, and so they try to conform to these norms. Thus, “they are controlled not only as objects of disciplines but also as self-scrutinising and self-forming subjects.”

Focusing on the subject side of control, we notice a ubiquitous tendency on the part of the present-day public of the formerly colonised societies. This is the tendency to readjust their self-image in order to bring it in conformity with a received narrative of what they are, a narrative that is conceived elsewhere, and which can often be malicious and factually false. Having lost in the colonial process both the linguistic ability and the will to read their own primary sources, this public can easily be lost in confusion exactly where the received narratives are confused.

One manifestation of the tendency to take the artificial for the real is deeming political boundaries as natural boundaries, deeming them forever fixed by virtue of some eternal cosmic law. The “nation-state” political borders of much of the globe, let’s recall, have been drawn and redrawn in the early 20th century in a colonial milieu, often in haste, in a shifting power dynamics, under intense pressures of war, and typically without regard to local cultures and traditions, guided solely by a will to control and dominate. The poet Iqbal once made the divine voice alert us that nature had made the whole world from the very same elements — from the same water and earth. But we, the humans, atomised it into Iran and Tartary and Nubia!

Living in a manufactured world of constructs, we forget something crucial: that what we call “modernity” is a convergence — a convergence in which many peoples and civilisations have participated, despite its European locus. In this historical process the Arabo-Islamic world has loomed large. Indeed, it is not possible to narrate the intellectual or literary history of the Greeks or the Latin West without recourse to Arabic sources. The converse is true too: Arabic intellectual history cannot be told in the absence of Greek and Latin legacy either. In the realm of ideas the boundaries between them break down — and here we see a continuity in world culture, a Greek-Arabic-Latin continuity that falls into perspective only if we heal the malady of confusing the artificial with the real, and thereby free ourselves from Foucauldian controls.

Let me move from this rather long-winded prologue to concrete history. It comes to us as a surprise, for example, that the Arabo-Islamic world (call it “Islamicate” or “Muslim” or even “X”) played a decisive role in the discovery of America; and that European Romance poetry — more specifically Provençal poetry — and the songs of French troubadours have their origins in Hispano-Arabic literature; and that the author of the classic novel Don Quixote, considered to be the greatest European work of fiction, says that his was an Arabic tale translated for him by a Moor, that is, an Arabic-speaking Muslim of the region. I have chosen all of these examples from Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, a cultural milieu that has been given a metaphysical permanence by Washington Irving and Iqbal.

Muslim Spain is in many ways intriguingly unique in world culture. It was here that we see a coming together not only of Europe and Islam, but also the entry of a third decisive element — the New World, America. Note that “all four historical voyages [of Columbus] were conceived, organised, provisioned, launched and ultimately concluded within the triangle comprising Palos, Seville, and Cádiz.” So all of this happened in al-Andalus. But more, there exists a paradox here: Columbus was motivated and animated essentially by a crusading zeal — to take Christianity to the East, destroying the perceived Muslim enemy in the process. Yet, ironically, he depended squarely on Arabo-Islamic geographical knowledge, on Arabic cosmology, cartography, and navigational expertise. J. H. Kramers, a known scholar of Islam, had declared a while ago that “[t]he Islamic geographical theory may claim a share in the discovery of the New World.” And further: Arabic geographical knowledge kept “alive the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth … without which the discovery of America would have been an impossibility.” The story is richer and more complex, but let’s move on to poetry.

It was in Muslim Spain too, some distance away from Damascus and Baghdad and Oxus, that two new genres of Arabic poetry were born. A far cry from Arabic classical verse, these genres embody a delightful deviation from the language, diction, form, and — most intriguingly — the metrical structure of standard Arabic poetics. The standard form is familiar to the readers through its naturalisation into Persian and Urdu poetry — a series of half-verses (misra‘), making up so many she‘rs, of which the first half-verse is blank and the second monorhymes, except for the opening she‘r(s) (matla‘) in which both half-verses rhyme. Further, in the standard poem, all verses are composed in the same meter. Here it is important to note that all classical Arabic poems, and practically all Persian and Urdu poems, are based on quantitative meters, as opposed to stress-based meters of English poetry — quantitative meters whose numeric system was codified by the arithmetician-prosodist Khalil ibn Ahmad as early as the eighth century.

All of this is flouted in the two Hispano-Arabic genres — the muwashshaha, and the zajal. Both these are meant to be sung, both have stanzas that are all set to the same music, carrying a refrain, and both incorporate vernacular diction. The muwashshaha is in classical Arabic, but the final element, two half-verses that are always placed in the mouth of a woman, is normally in the vernacular — it can be in colloquial Arabic or in Romance, or a combination of the two. Zajal, on the other hand, is entirely in the vernacular Arabic dialect with Hispano-Romance words and phrases thrown in here and there.

The rhyming scheme, complex as it happens to be, has nothing to do with the monorhyme of Arabic, Urdu or Persian ghazal or qasida, nor the aa/bb/cc … scheme of the masnavi. But the most riveting thing about the two Andalusi genres is their metrical structure — generally they have no quantitative meter; rather, they embody distortions, mixtures, or truncations of classical Arabic meters to acquire stress-rhythm, close to the stress-syllabic metrics of European poetry. The resounding question is, who has influenced whom? Do we have here an expansion of Arabic metrics and rhythmic structures that is subsequently transmitted to European poetry, or is it the Andalusi espousal of European stress-based meters and poetic styles?

There certainly is to be found a striking parallel between the songs of French troubadours and Hispano-Arabic poetry. Apart from analogous styles, structures, and colloquialisms of the Andalusi tradition, the troubadours also propagated the well-known idea of Courtly Love: the unconditional submission of the lover, the coquetry, sovereignty and unattainability of the beloved, the secrecy of love and the fear of notoriety, the sprouting forth of poetry out of love — all of this is until this day the stuff of Urdu ghazal and needs no elaboration. This Courtly Love has been described as a “comprehensive cultural phenomenon,” running through European literature between the 12th to 14th centuries and informing nearly all major poets and fiction writers of the period — Wolfram von Eschenbach, Dante, Chaucer, and Malroy among them.

Many important contemporary scholars claim that it is the Hispano-Arabic poetry, especially the muwashshaha and the zajal, to which Romance poetics and the magnificent songs of the troubadours owe their birth and constitution. But certainly there are others who have reservations about this claim, arguing that the transmission may well be the other way around, or there may have been an exchange. But does it matter which way the traffic went? The important thing is to carve it in our consciousness that we have here an indelible record of the meeting of cultures. Whatever the constructed entities the Occident and the Orient happen to be, ideas have not recognised these borders. Cultural mores, literary themes, artistic motifs, scientific knowledge — all of these have moved freely without let or hindrance between political divisions. And let’s remember: ideas are not passive entities; no, they have their own autonomy, and they are animated and efficacious like the many arms of the Hindu goddess Durga.

Foucault has made us uncomfortable: we have now become conscious of the fact that there is something wrong with the received narrative that we have of ourselves. There is something rattling underneath this narrative, “What is it that rattles?”

The first citation is from Gary Gutting, ‘Michel Foucault,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition); the second is from K. Nebenzahl, quoted by A. Hamdani in his chapter in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, S.K. Jayyusi ed., Leiden, 1992. J. H. Kramers too is quoted by Hamdani.



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