I BELIEVE RELIGION, SCIENCE AND ART COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER

INTERVIEW WITH ARIF ABDUL MATEEN

 

By Dr.K.Sohail

 

Sohail: Dear Uncle! There are a number of topics that I would like to discuss with you. But today I will focus on your journey of creative and philosophical evolution. Can you tell me about your childhood? Can you share with me what kind of family and social environment you grew up in? What were the values and traditions of that culture?

Arif: As far as I can remember, there were two parallel traditions that existed in the world I opened my eyes in. On one hand, there was a keen interest in the tradition of religious and spiritual values, and on the other hand, there was a special focus on the scientific tradition. Among our elders, there were scholars like Maulana Sana-ullah whose interpretation of Quran enlightened our family. My maternal grand father, my nana jan Ghulam Muhammad, who humbly called himself ahqar, but who others respectfully called mohaqqaq sahib (the research scholar), was fascinated with modern science. He was the one who introduced me to the Theory of Relativity. Although he could not read English, he discovered Einstein through the Urdu translations of his work by Dr. Razi-ud-din. He used to encourage us to see life in an objective way. As I grew older and developed an interest in art and philosophy, there was a synthesis of both traditions in my life. I have gradually come to the realization that Religion perceives reality at an intuitive level, Science conceives the same reality at a conceptual level and Art appreciates the same reality from an aesthetic point of view. We need to understand reality and comprehend life without our personal biases and prejudices. I believe Religion, Science and Art complement rather than contradict each other. They are different ways to discover reality and truth. They help us to find unity in the diversity of life, to get in touch with the Universal Truth, to embrace the meaning of life. They help us break those walls that mankind erects because of lack of appreciation of the unity and universality of life. Without Religion, Science and the Arts, we cannot discover and appreciate the mysteries of life and the universe.

Sohail: You mentioned your grand father but did not say anything about your parents. What kind of personalities and ideologies did they have?

Arif: I can say with great pride that my father had a liberal mind. He used to express his opinion about different aspects of life but did not insist that others should accept his point of view. He was a free thinker. He encouraged others to discover their own philosophy of life based on their own life experiences, observations, readings and analyses. He believed we had no right to impose our ideas on others, even our own children. He was a selfless man who dreamed of a peaceful and better world for all of humanity. He was always willing to share other people’s pain and help them relieve their suffering.

My mother was also a very honest and straightforward woman who believed in leading a simple life without hurting others. When I look at my life, I feel embarrassed that I could not uphold the high ideals of my parents.

I was also influenced by my uncle, who had risen to the high position of Assistant Income Tax Commissioner in Lahore. He exemplified the scientific, logical and rational approach towards life. In our family, we were lucky to have great role models who struggled all their lives to touch the highest ideals of life. My brother Khwaja Abdul Basit is also an idealist. In his character I see the reflection of the characters of our ancestors. He is younger than I in age, but older in wisdom. I never saw a duality of thought and action in his life. You have every right to feel proud to be his son.

Sohail: You also have two sisters. What are your impressions of their personalities?

Arif: My older sister Masooda was a symbol of love and sacrifice. If I had not had her in my life, I would have been deprived of many comforts and luxuries. From my other sister Tahira, who is younger than Masooda, I learnt the significance of the psychological approach towards life. When I integrated all traditions and attitudes that were present in my social environment, I developed a mystical philosophy, a philosophy that helps human beings transcend the barriers of language, ethnicity, class and religious prejudices. Such a philosophy ignites a fire a people’s hearts, a fire that connects humanity with divinity. I believe we, as human beings, have to embrace the truth that we have inherited from the mystics, prophets, scientists and artists from all over the world. That truth connects us with the rest of the universe. I believe that Religion, Science and Art help us to get in touch with the Absolute Truth, the truth that we need for our human evolution, individually and collectively.

Sohail: Tell me something about your teachers.

Arif: I was fortunate to be taught by dedicated teachers who had a sense of purpose in life. My teachers include Allama Hohammad Falsafi, Dr. Akhter Hussain Raipuri, Syed Karamat Hussain Jafri, Khawaja Sadiq Hassan, Baha-ul-Haq Qasmi, Dr. Jaffar Hussain and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. You can imagine from the names that they belonged to different schools of thought, but I tried to learn from all of them and absorb their knowledge, experience and wisdom into my personality.

Sohail: When did you start your creative and literary life?

Arif: My sisters used to tell me that even when I was small, I used to write some poetic lines but I do not remember that myself. My uncle made me aware of my creative self. He used to live in Ferozpur and I lived in Amritsar with my family. I used to write him letters on behalf of my parents. Reading my letters, he had predicted that I would grow up to be a writer or a poet. In those days, I did not know what being a poet or a writer really meant, but I knew that my uncle had sensed something special in my personality. When I grew older, I discovered the hidden meanings of words.

My aunt was also aware of my latent talent. When she used to see me sitting on the roof with my chin on my palm, she used to say, “Look at this wise young boy”.  She used to make me aware of my hidden potential. Now I realize that being in deep thought was the beginning of developing my creative mood, which helped me write poetry later on.

Sohail: When was your first creation published?

Arif: My first essay and poem were published in the college magazine Al-Hilal. I was interested in writing poetry and criticism from the very beginning. Those creations were published in 1945 or 1946. I used to write regularly but I did not send them for publication. My dear and respected friend Sufi Abdul Karim was very fond of my writings and used to keep copies of them. Once, without telling me, he sent my poem to Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, the editor. Sufi Sahib used to ask me why I did not send my creations to magazines. I used to tell him that I would send them only if the editor of the magazines requested them from me.  So he sent my poem to Qasmi Sahib without letting me know. Those were the days when we used to read Adb-e-Lateef, Humayun and Adabi Dunya. We used to respect all the writers who were published in those reputable magazines. One day when Sufi Sahib and I bought the magazine Adab-e-Lateef, I saw my poem in it. I looked at Sufi Sahib and said, “ This must be your mischief. Now you hold onto the magazine. I don’t want people to see me carrying it.”

When I read the poem, I was shocked to see that Qasmi Sahib had made some changes in it. There were also some typographical errors. I wrote an angry letter to Qasmi Sahib stating, “One of my friends sent you my poem without my consent. I thank you for publishing my poem but I feel offended that you not only changed some lines but also did not proofread the manuscript. If might have been better if you did not publish it at all”. Within a few days I received a response from Qasmi Sahib stating, “I like your pride in your poem. Many young writers are very sensitive about their writings. The changes I made were to improve the quality of the poem. Since you are the author, I should have checked it with you before publishing it. I apologize for not doing that. I am also sorry for the typographical errors, as I do not have a proofreader in my office. I have to do all that work myself.”

I was quite impressed by Qasmi Sahib’s character. I realized how ungrateful I was. Rather than appreciating the gesture of introducing me to the literary world, I was criticizing him for improving my poem. I was so impressed by his greatness that I asked Sufi Sahib to accompany me to Lahore so that we could meet him and apologize for my ungrateful letter personally. When Sufi Sahib and I arrived in his Adab-e-Lateef office in Lahore, we found that he was at the office of a children’s magazine that he edited. That is where I met Qasmi Sahib the first time. I still remember his curly hair and the pair of glasses he was wearing. I introduced myself. “I am Arif Abdul Mateen and this is Sufi Sahib. I was so impressed by your letter that I came to apologize.” He asked us to be seated and talked to us for a while.

After that incident, he asked me a few times to send him my creations but I did not. I did not want him to think that I had gone to see him with some ulterior motive. We used to write each other frequently. Our letters brought us so close emotionally that he used to call me his adopted brother. I always respected him as my older brother. I never forgot his greatness in responding to my angry letter with a thoughtful and affectionate reply. At that time I did not realize that he had improved the literary quality of my poem. Later on, when I published the collection of my poems, I presented that one the way Qasmi Sahib had published it in his magazine. Whenever I share this incident, it is not to highlight my arrogance--it is to appreciate his gentleness. I should have been more open to his suggestions.

Sohail: How did you get introduced to the Progressive Movement? Which personalities impressed you in that school of thought?

Arif: The personality that impressed me the most was Akhter Hussain Raipuri. He used to teach in our college. I had already read his book on criticism. When I met him, I was touched by his gentle personality, polite attitude and sophisticated taste. He was a big name in the Progressive Movement.

I was also impressed by Krishan Chander. He wrote about downtrodden people and his humanistic philosophy, a philosophy that I inherited from my ancestors also.

I also liked Fikr Taunswi. He was the one who was instrumental in my becoming a co-editor of Adab-e-Lateef. We used to see each other quite frequently and discuss how the British colonization had made us suffer. There was a time when I used to walk him home and by the time I got back to Old Anarkali Bazaar, the curfew had started. On many occasions, the police picked me up and took me to the police station, but the Superintendent would let me go. He used to say, “He is a poet. He is a peace loving person. He goes to see his friend off.”

In short, the struggle to help the suffering souls of the sub-continent inspired me to join the Progressive Movement.

Sohail: If you were so actively involved in the Progressive Movement, then why did you distance your self from it?

Arif: I never distanced myself. I was never in favor of limiting the Progressive Movement to only one ideology. I am proud that for a decade Wazir Agha, a modernist, and I co-edited a magazine. He used to write his Modernist editorial while I wrote my Progressive editorial. I was always in favour of a democratic dialogue and I welcomed difference of opinion. I never supported extremist attitudes in any movement. I always encouraged a sympathetic assessment of the opponent’s philosophy. I always supported liberty of thought and action. That was the reason that alongside attending the meetings of Progressive writers, I also attended the meetings of Modernist writers in their Halqa-e-arbab-zauq. I always tried to adopt a balanced approach. I asked Progressive writers to appreciate aesthetic values in literature and art and asked Modernist writers to appreciate the close commitment of literature to life.  I always believed in a democratic platform where people could express their views and get involved in a genuine dialogue about art, literature and life. When people adopt extremist attitudes, then they get polarized and jeopardize the democratic process. In such a situation, a person who has a liberal and accommodating attitude is hurt the most. When he is asked by each group to abandon the other, and he does not, he is seen as a member of the opponent group and is rejected by both. I used to suggest to my writer friends that their creations should reflect aesthetic as well as humanistic values. Those aesthetic values that are not wedded to humanistic values become meaningless. I used to challenge both groups and tried to advocate a balanced approach in life and literature.

In the introduction of my collection of poems deed-a-o-dil, I quoted Mao Ze Dong, who while addressing the writers said that their writings not only needed to reflect intellectual integrity but also the high aesthetic values of literature. I also quoted from the writings of Marx and Lenin that literary values are a significant part of literature. They were aware that literature should not be used for propaganda. Engels in his letter to Margaret had mentioned that great pieces of literature communicate their message in a subtle way.

Over the years I have been expressing my views openly and honestly. I never left my writer friends from the Progressive Movement. If they distanced themselves from me, it was their choice. It is true that my views have evolved over a period of time. I embraced religion at a certain stage of my life but in my mind, there is no contradiction between religion and progressive ideas. I read a story once that Mohammad had a choice between going to pray or to a meeting of intellectual dialogue and he preferred the gathering of intellectual dialogue.

I think art and literature perceive life from an aesthetic point of view. We learn to appreciate beauty in life. God said “I am beautiful and I like beautiful things”. But beauty is different than obscenity. Obscenity does not respect humanity while genuine art embraces humanistic as well as aesthetic values.

Quran states that God sent a prophet to every community. What message did they bring? Quran also mentioned that Mohammad came to testify. The question is, to testify about what? The message of previous messengers, previous prophets, was to introduce humanity to Divinity, Absolute Truth, Absolute Reality. As I mentioned before, I think there are three ways to get in touch with that Truth, that Reality: through Science using intellect, through Arts using aesthetics and through Religion using intuition.

As far as the evolution of my philosophy is concerned, I quote one example to highlight the change in my attitude. Once Muhammad said to his disciples, “Help your brother, whether he is the oppressor or the oppressed.” His disciples said, “We know how to help the oppressed, but we don’t know how to help the oppressor.”  Muhammad said, “By helping him stop his oppression. By making him aware that his oppression also hurts him in the long run.” Muhammad had a compassionate attitude even for the oppressor. He did not teach class hatred, which is a part of other philosophies that are sympathetic to the cause of the oppressed. Muhammad wanted a better life for all classes and segments of society. His caring and compassion was universal. If I talk about universal brotherhood and some of my old comrades get upset, then I have to follow my own heart and philosophy rather than worry about others’ opinions about me. I have to be honest with myself. I have to follow my own conscience. And I can say that my conscience is clear.

I am ready to upset all groups and parties rather than joining one party. When people join parties, truths become one-sided. I have been trying to tell certain groups that I belong to all of them, but sometimes I am accepted by none, and that is the risk I have taken all my life. I never compromised my philosophy. I never believed in polarized politics. So often people believe that if you are not with them, you are against them. If I had not been taking those risks, I might not have seen the day when my own nephew is asking me why I left the Progressive Movement. I never disowned them. If they have disowned me because I wanted their message to be universal, then it is their choice. I did not want to restrict myself to one class or one group. I wanted the Progressive Movement not to restrict itself to the oppressed and the poor and suffering. I wanted it to broaden their horizons and make it global and universal and accept all of humanity.

Sohail: There was a time you used to teach Science and then you started teaching Islamic Studies. How did that transformation take place?

Arif: As I mentioned earlier in my interview, I was exposed to both traditions as a child. In the religious tradition, I followed the mystic path. I believe in religion, not religiosity. The mystic path helps to embrace all of humanity, while religiosity restricts people’s minds and limits their social interaction. Religion gives us the message of peace and humanistic values. It helps us to discover truth.

Sohail: I am still curious about the transition that took place in your philosophy and lifestyle when you left teaching science and started teaching Islamic Studies and adopted a mystic lifestyle.

Arif: At a certain stage in my life, I realized that I had not thoroughly studied Religion. My chronic illness also played a significant role in that transition. In the beginning I suffered from high blood pressure, then some other illnesses became part of my life. Those illnesses made me sensitive to certain human sufferings that I did not pay attention to before. Illness can also become a blessing. It can help us become better people if we become sensitive to other people’s sufferings. My illness helped me love ailing humanity.

In one of my poems I address my children and say that poets and prophets do not leave property as inheritance, they want their children to inherit love for the world’s ailing and suffering humanity. Those were the days when I started studying the biographies and philosophies of prophets. In that journey, I finally reached the doorstep of Muhammad and then I never left him. That is my destination now. Whether I am on the right path or not, it depends upon who is judging me. I now believe in God and want to follow the path of Muhammad, and that is enough for me

(At this point he started sobbing. I waited for a while and then he continued.)

I want the best for others. I pray for all of humanity. People can judge me; it is their choice. It is ironic that those people that I loved all my life not only left me but also started judging me. But I am not going to leave my love for Muhammad and his philosophy for those people. There was a time that Muhammad had also prayed for such people in these words, “ O God, they do not understand me. Please forgive them.”  

 

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