[Opinion] Crisis of poverty of thought

Aziz Ali Dad

In Pakistan our souls have been constantly fed on the emotions through the medium of poetry. It has permeated so much in our psyche that we view the order of things through the spectacles of emotions Over reliance on poetic medium has become an integral part of our thinking processes as our perception of history and other events is informed by it 

“What does a philosopher demand of himself first and last? To overcome his time in himself, to become ‘timeless’.– Friedrich Nietzsche

Historically, Indo-Gangetic region proved to be a fertile ground for the genre of poetry. Great mystics, preachers, reformers and founders of religion in India expressed their ideas in poetry. Even where sacred texts are written in prose, poetry became an efficacious medium to disseminate religious teachings and injunctions to the masses. The genre of poetry reached its zenith during the Mughal period as we see eminent poet cum “thinkers” indulging in mushahirasin the courts of the Mughal kings, princes and patricians. Dominance of poetry during the period of decline signify deeper crisis in the society. Poetry’s dominance over intellectual and cultural life of subcontinent resulted in poverty in the realm of philosophy.

Though there are some thinkers who can be treated as philosophers in loose term, their number is miniscule in terms of influence on overall thinking paradigm of south Asia as compared to poets. During the colonial period we witnessed emergence of individuals who started to engage philosophically with existential issues and intellectual challenges of the time. They represented their intellectual insights through the medium of prose. Despite their periodic forays into philosophy in prose, poetry still remained a dominant medium of the intelligentsia. Even Allama Iqbal resorted to poetry for the propagation of his ideas. This situation compels us to raise question about relationship between poetry and poverty of philosophy/thought.

In the 1960 Marshal McLuhan wrote a crisp but illuminating book ‘Medium is the Message’. The main argument of his book is that medium not only determines our message but also changes our way of thinking by bringing about changes in the way we perceive the world. Although, he brings examples from mediums introduced by technology, we can extend his argument to the genres employed in literature and different disciplines to convey the message.

Taking cue from this ground breaking insight into the processes of thought, a rewarding study can be done to ascertain relationship between dominance of poetic medium over prose and resultant impoverishment of thought in Pakistan. Pakistan inherited its literary and intellectual heritage from Indo-Persian literary tradition. During its formative phase and latter decades we witnessed efflorescence of philosophical engagement with issues of the time in the writings of Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim, M. Saeed Sheik, M.M. Sharif, Dr. Fazlur Rahman, Dr. C. A. Qadir, Allama I.I. Qazi, Hassan Askari, Allama Niyaz Fatehpuri, M. Aslam Ali, Abbas Jalalpuri, Sibt Hassan and many others. All of them expounded their ideas mostly in prose. Unfortunately, in the fin de siècle of the twentieth century we found Pakistan more impoverish nation in terms in philosophical debates.

Marginalization of prose in Pakistan can easily be seen in the book shops where majority of books available are about poetry. Books in prose are rare. Even in prose most of the publications are confined to travelogues, Biography or Autobiography. Serious prose writings, especially in philosophy and other disciplines, are marked by absence on the shelves of book stores. It connotes deeper cognitive dissonance in Pakistani thinking.

For the state to function well it is indispensible to have harmony in the interaction between its various organs. Likewise, for intellectual richness a society needs to strike a balance between heart and mind. In the case of Pakistan, poetry’s dominance over prose has stifled rational thinking, which in its turn resulted dominance of emotional approach to emerging challenges and maudlin attitude to existential issues. Poetic medium has transform our cognitive apparatus so much that most of the time we tend to wallow in emotions in matters that needs a dispassionate treatment. Hence, collectively we fail to develop the faculty of soul searching and criticism, which provides foundation for intellectual thinking.

The marginalization of prose has impoverished and limited our understanding of poetry itself for we failed to develop a strong tradition of literary criticism. Literary criticism enables us to understand literary texts with new insights provided by development of ideas in other disciplines, such as philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, politics etc. Thus, our understanding of even our literary master pieces, including poetry, is limited and devoid of profundity on the one hand, and our failure to contribute to the formation of discursive practices on the other.

Over reliance on poetic medium has become an integral part of our thinking processes as our perception of history and other events is informed by it. When the Mughal emperor Akbar-e-Azam introduced policy of religious tolerance during his reign, he was dubbed as infidel. In fact, Akbar was following the idea philosopher king propounded by Plato. When Muslims came into contact with Greek philosophy they found prose a suitable medium to develop philosophical understanding and explicate issues of self, society and the universe. Drawing inspiration from Plato Al-Farabi has introduced the idea of philosopher king in a modified form in his book ‘Al-Madina-ul-Fazila (The Virtuous City)’. Contrary to the perception of orthodox school of thought, Akbar was experimenting with the idea of philosopher king in the particular context of India. Although, there were more blasphemous things in poetry, they did not come under the stricture of orthodoxy for the medium of poetry was in consonance with their thinking pattern.

There must be a reason why Sir Syed Ahmed Khan used prose to shock people out of their intellectual slumber and orientate them towards occidental intellectual tradition mainly available in prose. It is the power of his prose than any mawkish poetry that inaugurated modernity in South Asian Muslims. However, the brief resurgence of prose from secondary position to prime medium for expressing ideas started to wane in the second half of the twentieth century. By the end of last millennium we entered into the new century with poetic lenses on our eyes and emotions in mind.

Dominance of the poetic medium in Pakistani society presents a situation that is diametrically opposite to the ideal society described by Plato. Plato’s reason for favoring some constitution vis-à-vis other types stems from his idea of a just soul. He thinks that the constitutions are born ‘from the characters of people who live in the cities governed by them’. The reason for the philosopher king being favored is that the philosopher king is the finest judge of various things and experiences. In ‘The Republic’ he banishes poet from state because he deems poet as an imitator, speaks under the influence of muse and caters to irrational part our soul and base emotions.

In Pakistan our souls have been constantly fed on the emotions through the medium of poetry. It has permeated so much in our psyche that we view the order of things through the spectacles of emotions. Unlike poetry, prose engages with intractable issues at a deeper level. In order to go beyond the boundaries of existing paradigms, thinking in prose pushes the boundaries of knowledge in a consistent and logical way. Instead of relying on ephemeral poetic illumination, thinkers consistently follow a single thought until he explores it holistically. Whereas poetry still seems to be struggling to break the boundaries of instinct by sublimating unconsciousness urges in the veneer of thoughts.

Our efforts of nation building are proving to be non-starter for the reason that we tried to lay the foundation of nation on dreams, which were vaguely expressed in the poetry of Allama Iqbal. If we compare the process of nation building in Pakistan with France after the revolution, we can easily discern that even our ideological edifice and nationhood has been informed by poetry not prose. French revolution was triggered by the ideas of French philosophes, like Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire. Poetry lies at the heart of our ideological edifice and prose at the centre of New France after the revolution. Philosophers of French Revolution passed away centuries ago, yet they are still icons for the ideas they stood for.

Since we invest poetry of Iqbal in excess in the process of national building, we still remain confused about the very definition of culture, identity and other nation issues. In addition, taking benefit of the ambiguities of poetry obscurantist forces has appropriated Iqbal to cast the country in their ideological mold. It has been more than two centuries when the said French philosophers appeared on the intellectual horizon of the world but they have not been appropriated by the forces who are ideologically their opponents. This shows malleable nature of poetry in contrast to stable position of prose. Given the nature of both mediums a rational choice for laying the foundation of nation should be stable prose than supple poetry.

A psychological ramification of overlooking prose in the intellectual pursuit appears in the creation of bad faith in Pakistani intelligentsia. Faced with the problematic of church and state, philosophers, sociologist, historians and political theorists expanded on the topic of separation between church and state thoroughly. Much of the political theory is derived from the discourse generated by theorists writing in prose. Whereas in Pakistan, intellectuals, in an act of bad faith, shirk from confronting the issue and avoid undergoing excruciating exercise of mentally engaging with the challenges over the long period. Instead of providing us a treatise they provide short cuts by presenting their illuminations in poetry. A long standing problem or issue needs deeper and longer thinking not experience of poetic epiphany. For instance, the intellectual intricacies of the issue of separation between religion and state in the particular context of Pakistan get resolved with a verse of Iqbal:

Jalale padshahi ho kih jamhoori tamasha ho
Juda ho Deen Siyasat say to reh jatee hai Changay-zi


(Whether the system of government is a megalomaniac monarchy or a circus of democracy,
If religion separates from political, then you are left with barbarism)

The moment when a person inserts this couplet, the whole discourse ceases. An orator who peppers his speech with poetry is more likely to get resounding applause from audience than Dr. Manzoor Ahmed elucidating intricacies of a social problem in dry prose. To get rid of bad faith it is sine qua non to understand that neither a profound intellectual engagement is possible in a poem, nor an ephemeral experience can illuminate problems that remain in the domain of unthought for centuries. In the particular context of Pakistan, poetry is a manifestation of bad faith because it prevaricates difficult question by providing easy answers that stem less from thought than subjective feelings and emotions.

In a discussion with this scribe eminent historian, Dr. Mubarak Ali, told that he does not have expertise in poetry, but he receives large number of writings in poetry for rectification. He lamented the fact even educated people of Pakistan take more interest in poetry than reading serious prose and explicating their thoughts through it. Considering the fascination of people with poetry in Pakistan, it is safe to assume that we are relying on a medium that obfuscate more than making things clear.

A cursory glance at the op-ed pages of Urdu and English newspapers reveals that every Urdu newspaper necessary carries a Rubaiwhich tersely comments on a burning issue of the day, whereas English newspapers do not have space for it. There is a pattern behind this seemingly unnoticeable practice. Presence and absence of couplets in Urdu and English newspaper respectively is a manifestation of deeper structure that determines our impoverished way of perceiving and understanding things. The cumulative result of dominance of poetry over prose resulted in intellectual stagnation in Pakistan

No doubt poetry has enabled mankind to digest other foods of thought at the latter stage of human civilization. As a nation we are still tied to umbilical cord of poetry even in this phase of human history. Philosophical thought emerge in a society that musters courage to lose protection of certainties, challenges received wisdom and tried mediums and expose itself to uncertainties. It is through questioning and investigation of curious minds mysteries of life and cosmos unravel.

On the heels of World War II, German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno in his little known essay “Cultural Criticism and Society” proclaimed “cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today”. Currently, Pakistan is undergoing a critical phase of its history where we witness disintegration of atoms in every sphere of life. In such a situation of social turmoil and anarchy, it is simply an act of barbarism to write poetry for it obfuscate instead of laying bare the issues.

No doubt poetry is beautiful and fascinating but we need to disenchant our thinking behavior from the charm of poetry so that we can create an alternative narrative and become intellectually rich. Otherwise, we will remain enchanted like Odysseus to Circe’s magic. Although, life of Odysseus with Circe was full of mirth, joy and beauty, it kept him oblivious of his real destination. Only a drug called molly offered him resistance from her magic.

Likewise, we need a molly of prose that will enable us to resisting the bewitching beauty of poetry. It is our fascination with beauty of poetry that has made us intellectually impoverished. Love and beauty are alluring because they appear beautiful right from the start and their companionship is full of joy and bliss, but nobody can is sure about the end. That is the reason we called love at first sight. On the contrary journey for truth is excruciating for it is not beautiful at first sight and the path is full of angst, tribulations, fear and trembling. Only after undergoing the travails of engagement with truth, the beauty of truth and its accompanying pleasures reveal themselves, but at the end.

Faced with the enchanting song of the Sirens, Odysseus and his sailors plugged up their ears with beeswax and tied themselves to mast so that they can steer their ships in right direction and does not get distracted by them. Given the deteriorating conditions in the every sphere of life in Pakistan there is a dire need to give prose it long overdue position. A time of great turmoil and crisis demands questioning at grand level. For the poetry to convey profound ideas we need to have intellectual repository and knowledge in prose. Without required depth of prose, all poetry rings hallow. We cannot banish poetry from our society but we can avoid excessively indulging in poetry at the expense of prose and focus on exploring intellectual issues philosophically.

Until now we have to great extend remained depended on the medium of poetry for intellectual exploration. It is high time to expand the horizon of our thinking by employing prose that is more compatible with intellectual inquiry than poetry. It would contribute to the intellectual enrichment of the society that is still under the illusion that it can unravel every mystery of the self, society and universe by couching them in subjective outpourings of poetry. In order to address the crisis of reason in Pakistan and laying rational foundation for society we need to become Platonic than a poet who lulls our minds to sleep by producing rhythm in a society that is plagued by disharmony in every walk of life.

Aziz Ali Dad is a social scientist hailing from Gilgit and is associated with a rights based organization in Islamabad. He studied social philosophy and English literature at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached at

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  1. You are absolutely right, Aziz. Poetry has permeated Pakistani nation to the extent of intoxication. Ideologies are, either, built out of poetry or propped up by poetry here. Aesthetics as whole and poetry specifically should be treated as cosmetic layer to structure the thought process rather than treating it as foundation. From Rickshaw driver to Chief Minister of Punjab, everybody seems to repose in poetry.

    A Taliban spokesperson said this in his media release.

    فطرت کے مقاصد کی کرتا ہے نگہبانی
    یابندہ صحرائی یا مرد کوہستانی

    I do not really know what Iqbal meant by this. But Taliban spokesperson surely meant OBL (Banda-e-Sehrai) and Hakim Ullah Masood (Marde-Kohistani). What are the فطرت کے مقاصد ? Well that is not the poetic business.

    There are thousand examples of thought being rapped by poetry and your observation is really valuable.

  2. I agree with the writer to the extent that the era of romanticism is long over and finding solace in romantic poetry will not help us. We can no more afford to be the victims of our own untamed emotions stirred up by the centuries old poetic traditions.
    However, I would like to differ with the writer on the pretext that actual problem is not with poetry or prose as they are just the means of expression of a terrible condition we are enduring. The reason of despondency of our people is gruesome and goes far deeper into our collective consciousness as a nation. One of reasons of production of depressive literature by our writers during the past few centuries is reflected from the fact that while the emperors in the subcontinent were building the monument of love – the Taj Mahal, the west was silently building the campuses for Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford. When a nation destroys itself, it first loses its rationality and common sense then finds solace in the past and poetry; shies away from hard-core realities of life and pampers its own ego under the shadows of its own falsely projected self-image. Only the poetry is capable of serving this practice of self-deception. In other words, it is medium of expression suited to our people under the state of self-pity. Correcting the medium will not automatically solve the problems which are so profound and far reaching. We need to fix the problem right at the source.

    The philosophy helps to germinate the thought process therefore it is good. But too much philosophy is as harmful as fiction and poetry because there are no limits to exaggeration of thoughts like the exploits of emotions. The ideal of Plato’s republic could never be achieved in the recorded history and probably no philosopher will become a king; as a philosopher is too busy a person with his thoughts to deal with worldly matters. I seriously doubt that Kind Akbar even bothered to know about the Plato’s republic. What he did experiment with was either politically motivated or it was due to the influence of his beloved wife Jhoda. If Akbar and his successors were rational to extent of being philosophical, the history of subcontinent would be different today. Other leading Greek philosophers claimed that knowledge and reality can be conceived in human thought through logic, independent of perception and experience. The West for centuries remained the victim of dogmatism and philosophical idealism. At the onset of the era of enlightenment, Copernicus objected to the Aristotelian arrangement of the universe which suggested that Earth was the centre of universe. Copernicus was persecuted for proving that Earth is not the centre of universe. We are going through a similar era of our own kind of dark ages and need truly enlightened leaders to jolt the nation from the deep sleep of denial and hypocrisy.

    In my opinion, the redemption of our self-esteem is possible if we honestly stop making fool of ourselves, both in emotion and thought. We need to take the course dictated by pragmatism and rationality and not to fall prey to the feel-good-sentiments of unknown origin. But first we need to build strong institutions capable of making progress on such an extra-ordinary agenda. To be honest, not the poets and philosophical idealists, but the empiricists and pragmatists can help turn around the mind set of our nation.

  3. Awesome stuff.. Really like your post. We should do something about the poverty crisis in Pakistan.

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