Certainty and its discontents

The past and future would no longer be fused in union, no longer in conversation


Abdullah Naveed December 28, 2021
The writer is a researcher working on Islam in South Asia and is a graduate of the University of Chicago. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @anaveed

If one listens intently to those who have managed to cling to power in this kingdom of ours, it would seem that the answer to all our trials lies in the simple hammering down of certain prescriptions based on self-assured conceptions of history, time, and progress. These antidotes on offer promise a dazzling array of healing properties. Has Pakistan turned out nothing like they told us it would? Are you nauseated by how time has unfolded? Is your back tremendously burdened and bruised by the increasingly arduous task of carrying yourself and your loved ones up the treacherous climb towards economic and social stability? Look no further for the state has promised to take us back to the seventh century, where, thankfully, all is still well; all is still certain, and it is where we need not fret about the intricacies of inhabiting the here and now.

But before we purchase this elixir promising us respite, should we not stop to question whether we want this sort of certainty in the first place? The way layers of history keep unfolding, with all its repetitions and turpitudes, we would do well to be wary of how we define certainty. Our horizons of possibility remain skeletal at best, and the way we imagine our futures are tainted by the burden of how we narrowly understand history: we are held hostage to a belief in linearity, to the idea that things must unfurl as articulated in our use of language, which, itself, is flavored by the conditions that animate the colliding streams of time we live in.

Things are made worse by academic stooges of the state who cannot seem to understand the simple idea that being a distinct civilisation does not mean being in incessant civilisational conflict. For them, certainty entails claiming moral superiority over all else. Their treatment of Islam like a whip to be cracked against other traditions, be they religious or secular, unveils both their poor grasp of scripture and history — which stand as witnesses to Islam’s potential as a facilitator of constructive dialogue. The scholar of religion Peter Ochs impels us to move past emaciated conceptions of religion by imagining ourselves as moving from a “state of conflict into a state of difference without conflict”. Those who cry Islam the loudest are themselves possessed by the ghost of secular modernity, by what Charles Taylor called the “immanent frame”, for they cannot imagine the expansiveness of the transcendental, of God’s boundlessness. They are held captive by Wittgenstein’s proverbial “picture”, in whose frame they remain imprisoned, failing to see the diminutiveness of their own imaginations.

The Pakistani public discourse also holds itself in debt to the ideas of men long gone, men who may have forcefully birthed this nation into existence but men who do not live in the cataclysm of the now. While we may gain from knowing the lives they lived and the thoughts they thought, new horizons demand acts of construction that amalgamate the past, present and future as charitably as possible, as expansively as possible

To demand a certainty — one rooted in an inability to forfeit control, order, and the capacity to fully exact the whims of our will — parallels a slowly spreading toxin within the body, one that mutates the logic bearing components of our intellect while concomitantly numbing the heart’s capacity to feel. This degenerating impulse starts from within the soul, meandering slowly through the recesses of the subconscious, and it eventually trickles out to the sea of our collective political consciousness. It is at that moment that an intense intellectual rigidity grips our conceptions of truth, goodness and love. From our personal lives to the nation-state itself, a rather strange sense of expectation from the future begins to cloud how we imagine our place in time. But what is wrong with expectations?

How we understand history determines how we imagine time to flow. Certain progressivists, inspired by teleological notions of history, may try to resist the master/slave conditions that taint not only our Pakistani society, but the entire wavelength of secular time. Their thought is built, to some extent, on an expectation of perfected futures. Others may object to class analyses by highlighting the entrenched nature of hierarchies as a constituent part of life, as a fact of existence. Reinhart Koselleck masterfully delineates the growing schism between experience and expectation concomitant with the rapid acceleration of time in modernity. Perhaps, in part, an Enlightenment legacy, the notion of afterlife as the destination of our sojourn in time gave way to exciting conceptions of open-ended futures, their canvases ripe to be painted upon.

Unmoored from the berth of tradition, the subsequent centuries would herald an age of ideologies, with many turning violent. The past and future would no longer be fused in union, no longer in conversation; the former could no longer live up as a guide for the latter; the feverish ideology of progress would come to grip our memories and imaginations. Expectations were to become decoupled from experience, the latter being a state of the present being in symbiotic conversation with the past: a dealignment had emerged. Each historical phase would come to exist in an epistemological vacuum; a swift remaking of the world we inhabited would make us believe in the distinctiveness of our historical moment; while we would keep trying to co-opt legacies of the past, our attempts to do so would be tainted by our belief in the uniqueness of our own time.

Internally troubled conceptions of certainty assuage man that he follows the divine word; his actions express his self-assuredness in his own ability to exact his will. When he kills his fellow man in the name of the divine, he expresses his imprisonment to the idol of his self; his expressed acts of faith betray the nihilism that claws at his heart. Dostoyevsky speaks for these possessed men; holding bloodied hands together in the private communion of holy sinners, they bemoan the disloyal nature of their agency: “if God exists, all is His will and from His will I cannot escape” but “if there’s no God, then everything is my will, and I’m bound to express my will.”

In times plagued by the steady stream of novel anxieties, how then do we imagine our place in history in a way that may responsibly lessen the burden of time? As a starting point, let us be more generous to experience if we are to have expansive futures informed by the “sediments of time”; Koselleck thinks that the “greater [our] experience, the more cautious one is” and with that restraint comes the possibility of a more capacious future. Then let us pay heed to experience as we gently and carefully lean into our futures. Let us then imagine theologies that may welcome difference without betraying the ideals they themselves stem from.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2021.

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