Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lessons from the Arabs


The stereotype image of Arabs today is one of a lazy, laid-back race, which lives in a dreamland of its medieval glory and has come into enormous wealth through oil reserves buried under the sandy wastes of its homeland discovered by western explorers. In turn, this image of indolence has lent credence to western propaganda that Islam initially espoused by the Arabs was spread by the power of the sword across the Middle East, North Africa into the heart of Europe on the one side, and Iran, Afghanistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia on the other.

Nothing could be farther than the truth. Arabian civilisation and Islam spread so widely in so short a time because Arabs of those times were, in fact, a superior race and pioneers in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, engineering, navigation, geography, medicine, architecture, literature and philosophy (the word is derived from the Arabic falsafa).

Christians and Europeans imbibed much learning from them in the long confrontation with the Arabs. And went ahead. The Arabs rested on their laurels and were left behind. This revelation came to me through an article sent to me by a friend, Ashutosh Tuli, who I have never met. It is based on the review of a book, The House of Wisdom: How The Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons (Bloomsbury).

Like the Arabs, Indians, too, were masters of literature and philosophy. But today our learning has become static

Early Arabs took a lot from ancient Greek texts. As early as 762 AD, they set up a library in Baghdad with a team of translators called Bait-al-Hikmat (the House of Wisdom). Arabs replaced Greek as the universal language of scientific inquiry, concludes Lyons. There is much we Indians can learn from the Arab experience. We also had an ancient civilisation with its own literature, philosophy, art, architecture, medicines, mathematics, astronomy etc. Like the Arabs, our learning became static. So we, too, lost out to the West. The moral is to move with the times or you will lag behind in every field of activity.

Making fun of death

Death is no laughing matter. So how can anyone make fun of it? However, Simon Critchlay, currently head of the Department of Philosophy of a college in New York, has done precisely that. He had gone through lives of 190 philosophers who had expressed themselves on the subject—how they lived and died. His compilation, Book of Dead Philosophers (Vintage), has been recently published in the US. It appears there is very little that is laughable or funny about philosophers breathing their last.

There was Socrates, who was sentenced to death but allowed to take his own life. Surrounded by his admirers, he gave them his final discourse, drank a goblet of hemlock and died. It could not possibly have been funny. Then there was Heraclitius, who had himself smeared into cow-dung as a preventive against disease. It suffocated him to death. The one which does bring a smile on one’s lip is the way Avicenna, medieval Islamic philosopher, died. He believed that having lots of sex kept a man’s mind off dying.

So he had a lot of it. He was of the opinion that one should have clean bowels before having sex. So he had lots of enemas—once he had eight enemas in one day. It is not recorded how many times he had sex that day.

Sigmund Freud smoked 20 cigars everyday. When asked to explain, he replied: “A cigar is sometime just a cigar”. He died of mouth cancer. Montaigne, the French philosopher, wanted to die quietly. He died in 1591. However, his brother had a sporting end. His head was hit by a tennis ball, which cracked his skull.

Neitsche, the German who proclaimed ‘God is dead’, died of syphilis. God is believed by most people to be still alive and kicking. And so on. Indian philosophers and poets took a gloomy view of death. Mirza Ghalib, who was obsessed with it, could not get it out of his mind. He wrote: “There is a day fixed for death—Maut kaa ek din muayyan hai. Then why does it give me sleepless nights?

Neend kyon raat bhar nahin aati? And went on to add:

Aagey aatee thhee haal-e-dil pey hansee;

Ab kissee baat pey nahin aatee.

Allama Iqbal was more philosophical about the phenomenon, and believed that a man had to have faith to be able to take death in his stride. Two lines written in Persian sum up his view:

Nishaan-e-mard-e-momin ba too goyam?

Choon marg aayad, tabasum bar lab-e-ost.

(You ask me about the sign of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips).

Wrong target

Jarnail Singh did something unpardonable for a journalist. He also chose the wrong man as his target — Chidambaram, one of the ablest and the most cool-headed minister in the government. He had nothing to do with the selection of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar as Congress candidates in the forthcoming elections. Although Jarnail missed his target, he hit the nail on the head.

The CBI may have given Tytler a clean chit. The Sikhs had not done so. This was evident in the widespread demonstrations in Delhi, Punjab and elsewhere. Then there is a lighter side of the episode—the adoration Sikhs continue to have for soldiering. The name Jarnail is derived from General. Likewise, his brother Karnail’s name is derived from Colonel. There are others— Subedar Singh, Laftan (Lieutenant) Singh, Major Singh and Kaptan (Captain) Singh. They have yet to find suitable Punjabi versions for ranks in the Navy and the Air Force.