Wed. Aug 10th, 2022

Sacred and sacrilegious [The NEWS]

Aziz Ali Dad

Aziz Ali Dad

Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “If God is dead then all is permitted.” The post-Dostoyevsky period in the west witnessed the formation of a new society on the basis of secular ideals where the sacred is relegated to the private sphere and “all is permitted” to the profane. On the other hand, the sacred remains an indispensable part of the Islamic world at the expense of worldly affairs. The recent movie Innocence of Muslims has created a furor among Muslims around the world. The sentimental reaction of Muslims over the movie and the subsequent western surprise over this is symptomatic of the absence of dialogue, and the resulting mutual misunderstanding between proponents of the sacred and the secular.

Since Dostoyevsky’s famous pronouncement, both the sacred and the secular have been engaged in a chronic war to dominate each other’s space. It is interesting to notice that most of the protests against the movie were held in societies where God is still a part of everyday life. The everydayness of the sacred manifests in diverse forms, such as calligraphy, architecture, protests, cuisine, gardens, qawwali, violence, extremism, morals, poetry, music, whirling dervishes etc. The confrontation between Muslim societies and western nations essentially stems from the fact that in the former the sacred still holds respect within the secular domain, whereas profanity has attained the status of the sacred in the latter. Thus it can be said that the sacred has been made a major part of the secular domain by Muslims on the one hand, and no profanity is tolerated against secular values by the west, on the other.

Infusion of secular ideas and dominance of secular institutions over the last two centuries have disenchanted western societies. They are averse to any metaphysical schema or institutional arrangement legitimatised by the sacred. Consequently, a culture of disbelief has emerged in the west. For a mind that has been nurtured within such a culture, it is difficult to comprehend the domain of the sacred. On the other hand, Muslims have neither undergone the process of disenchantment from the old world semiological universe created by religion.

Particular acts find space within a particular cultural setting, when a society is intellectually equipped to absorb shocks of change. In this regard, no intellectual homework has been done in Muslim societies. Secularism among Muslims, in general, and Pakistan, in particular, has become the creed of the elite or wishy-washy liberals and religion the only refuge for the middle-classes or poorer sections of society. Both the religious and the liberal sections of society are engaged in a monologue that is oblivious of the ‘Other’ mindset. Their interests and worldviews are poles apart. This also holds true for the world at large. Absence of dialogue between the secular and the religious has resulted in the ossification of their discourse into immutable creed and ideology. Extremism and fundamentalism stems from rigidity in outlook. Today, secularism and religion are represented by extremists at the expense of other representations, expressions, manifestations, and forms. If we allow both cultures to flourish, without dialogue, in the same time and space, we are paving the way for an ultimate clash of cultures at a national level, and clash of civilisations at a global level.

To avert this clash between the secular and religious domains, there is an urgent need to find a common platform for dialogue. The starting point of dialogue should be increased interaction, collaboration and dialogue, not between secular clerics and managers of religion, but those who highlight the aesthetic dimensions of both worldviews. And the only people who represent aesthetic sensibilities of the age are artists, such as musician, poets, fine artists, dancers, architects, novelist etc. Dialogue at the aesthetic level will pave the way for mutual appreciation of beauty latent in the sacred and the divine. Karen Armstrong realises the importance of artists in bringing people closer in the divided world of today. In her book, A Short History of Myth she asks artists to instruct humanity. She writes “if professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”

A fine example of civilisational dialogues between artists is West-östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Divan) by the German poet Goethe who was inspired by the divan of famous Persian poet Hafiz Shirazi. In response to Goethe, Dr Muhammed Iqbal wrote Payam-i-Mashriq in which he tried to “bring out those social, moral and religious truths which have a bearing on the spiritual development of individuals and communities.” Formation of ‘West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’ by the renowned Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and Israeli pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim, is another example of engaging with the ‘Other’ at an aesthetic level. The orchestra is composed of musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other Arab countries. According to Barenboim these are the “countries where the open ear has been too often replaced by the unsheathed sword, to the detriment of all.”

If we want to get rid of incessant violence, hatred and ugliness in the world, we ought to pay heed to what is aesthetically said and done, not to what is sacrilegiously said and done, because ugliness only breeds abhorrence. The world of aesthetics cultivates acceptance. Those who made the movie, those who defended it and those who acted violently in its wake are driven by the extreme stage of abhorrence – hatred.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email:

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