Recently a friend of mine shared his anxieties about his thesis he had submitted for his PhD and had been disappointed to see his mentor and guide attack it and allege that my friend had distorted, blasphemed and ridiculed the guide's professed religious belief (no guesses here). The guide's assumption was based on the fact that my friend had approached his topic from a scientific angle and had mentioned prominent scientists and their contributions. Now he is worried to death that his years of hard work and research will be wasted and his thesis will get rejected.

I'm nostalgic for the universities of yore, the 'makhtabs', which were centres of learning, research, debate, discussions, dissent, symposiums, rhetoric and the grand old field of philosophy. I imagine Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Razi, Ibn Khaldun and all bent over their treatises in the lamplights, their quills dripping ink, late into the night, surrounded by manuscripts and old parchments, scribbling down their thoughts, after hours of contemplation and star gazing. I imagine Ibn Rushd (Averroes) translating Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics into Arabic and extensively writing emendations to it. I'm pretty sure of people around Ibn Rushd - his friends, relatives, his mentors and contemporaries constantly challenging him, debating him, dissuading him, if he dared to step into the Mutazilite logic (primacy of reasoning) within Islam as opposed to the Asharite trend (primacy of the text) prevalent then. He must've gotten a lot of hope from his disciples who cried when his books were burnt in the 12th century Islamic Spain under a trumped up charge and he was forced to flee. 'The Commentator' as he was called by Thomas Aquinas immortalised Aristotle who was simply called 'The Philosopher' and his smuggled manuscripts by his faithful students were translated into Hebrew and Latin which paved the way for Aristotelian philosophy and logic in the West. 

Ibn Rushd's own Mutazalite leanings were soundly based on the concept of primacy of reasoning, in direct opposition to the Asharite dogged advocacy of primacy to the text. There is no surprise there that the Hanbali preference for texts combined with the treatment of Imam Hanbal at the hands of Caliph al-Mamun and his successor, won over many free thinking liberal Mutazalites simply because of the stubbornness to which Hanbal stuck to his beliefs. We as a species will always hand over our freedoms to totalitarianism because the very thought of complete freedom scares us into submission. Erich Fromm in his seminal works 'Escape from Freedom' and 'The Sane Society', proves that having the notion of no destiny, predetermination, fate, or revelation scares the hell out of us (pun intended). That's why the heretics and dissenters are feared; they force us to think, re-think, reconsider and unlearn our set patterns of thinking, our conditioning and habits of thinking. 

What happened to my friend with his mentor was a classic behaviour of resistance to change. We grow complacent in our ossified theories, rituals, traditions, mores and norms. In a world increasingly growing chaotic, unstable, brutal and polarised, we tend to cling ever more to ancient belief systems, drawing strength and security from familiar habits and unchanging principles and values. But we tend to ignore or deny the one universal truth – change is the only constant. In the world, in nature, our own bodies, everything is changing by the minute. Mountains are being formed, dormant volcanoes erupting, once flowing rivers drying up or dried up river beds suddenly filling up and swelling; old lakes shrinking, climate changing – nature in constant flux. 

 

But the deadwood (read the elders) choose to disregard these blatant evidences and truths and instead stubbornly stick to their old ways of thinking to maintain their illusion of stability. They even choose to turn a blind eye to another universally proven fact – progress, renewal, rebirth, life, call it what you may – finds a way. Like water, it either takes the shape of the confining structure and overflows, or its force rips the barrier apart to make way. The recent Kashmir Floods of September 2014 should have been an eye opener. No matter how much the deadwood of society, with their set patterns of thinking, force their outdated approach to life on the youth, the new blood will always find a way to skirt these fossilized mores and chart a path of their own. 

It’s not just the academic institutions of Kashmir that are stuck in the Asharite way of thinking, but politically too, the stakeholders tend to cling to the past, rake it up at elections, view the present with the prism of the past. They then thrust those views, opinions and policies on the common population simply because they have the power to do so, elected or selected, depending on what point of time who was sitting on the revered 'kursi'. 

The deadwood needs to go. They are already complicit in the baggage of hate they passed onto the subsequent generations and for keeping historical wounds open and festering in our minds. Now in their twilight years realising the futility of existence and the inevitability of mortality, in a last bid to seize glory they are holding back the new, the innovative, the creative, the black swans, the out-of-the-box, the dissenters, the heretics, etc. 

No matter how much we try to force the hapless population into medieval thinking and keep them ignorant about the world beyond, history is testimony to the fact that ideological despots and dictators eventually fall or are brought down. Of course, that doesn't bode well for the minds or lives that were destroyed at the altar of stubbornness, avarice and the power hungry. But fall they do often at the cost of destruction of communities, entirely. As Liberia, Namibia, Rwanda and all the conflict ridden countries of the 80s and the 90s limp back to peace, they are testimony to what I stated above. Despots of countries, institutions or families do fall eventually. It is for the oppressed under the despots to realise this one life that was given to us, and to make it worth the while, either living freely, resisting bigotry or facing eventual, inevitable death bravely doing what is right. 

Across the border there has been an icon like that recently. Sabeen Mahmud – her life and times are the best illustration of the above – gunned down for choosing to unsilence the silence of brutality. But she chose. As we must. As my friend did with his thesis.