Vaqt ki Raagni, which includes Muhammad Hasan Askari’s essay on Ibn-e Arabi and Soren Kierkegaard, appeared posthumously a year after his death in 1978. The bulk of the essays in this volume were written in the 1960s, a few in the 1970s, and the last four in the 1940s. In the 1960s, Askari was writing principally for the literary journal Saat Rang, ably edited by its owner Ather Siddiqi, who had started it at the behest and encouragement of Askari himself. Like most Urdu literary journals, it ceased publication after a few years. Later, in the 1970s, when the late Suhail Ahmad, a poet, critic and professor of Urdu at Lahore, started his Mehraab — a sporadic miscellany of creative and critical writing — largely to fill the gap left by the second demise of the celebrated literary journal, Savera, he especially invited Askari to write for it. Shabkhoon (Allahabad) was still another venue where a few stray pieces of the author found their way during this period.
Of the sixteen essays brought together in Vaqt ki Raagni, the last four, dating from an earlier time, although penetrating and insightful as Askari’s writings always are, really do not belong in this collection. They are thematically at odds with the other twelve. Their inclusion must be at tributed to Suhail Ahmad’s “eejaad-i-banda” — or “inventive exuberance,” if you will. The rest of the essays are all of a piece, indicative of the single, consuming engagement of their author with the problem and place of Reality within eastern civilisations. Questions such as what is literary taste, how it is born, what are its foundational assumptions, what it means to accept western literary concepts and influences, and whether such influences can be accepted without injury to one’s essential cultural ethos as it unfolds in empirical time are revisited in these essays from varying perspectives — literature, music, metaphysics, and writing-scripts — with a frightening intensity of focus. Askari eventually concluded that in order to deal with these ques tions it was necessary to first trace them back to a core concept — and that concept was Reality. But which Reality? The one grasped by man’s rational faculty? By his emotions? Senses? By all or none of these? Individually, none of these apparati of cognition, inasmuch as it is the instrument of a finite and contingent being, was necessarily self-existent. Hence it could only speak for itself and not for the cosmos as a whole. And collectively, they were all merely part of something still higher, self-existent and beyond temporality, indeed part of Existence itself. Askari felt that this Reality had to be metaphysical, well beyond the material world, but which nonetheless contained the material world within itself as a possibility of its phenomenal becoming. He arrived at this concept of Reality through Tasavvuf, as expounded in the metaphysics of Vahdat al-Vujud (Unity of Being) by its greatest theoretician Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240), a native of Murcia in south-eastern Spain.
The question of whether everyone in society was always conscious of this ineluctable relationship between one’s meanest or sublime act and Reality was perhaps less important for Askari. However, no informed cultural discourse — especially no literary discourse in South Asia with such formidable western values looming large overhead since the arrival of the English — could afford to bypass it. A lack of clarity regarding this question had clouded the thinking of most Urdu intelligentsia since the time of Sir Syed, Muhammad Husain Azad and Hali — men who ardently undertook to effect a transformation of their society in order to bring it abreast of that of their English overlords.
Askari’s chief purpose in the present essay is a comparative study of the treatment of Abraham’s narrative by Soren Kierkegaard in his Fear and Trembling and by Ibn-e Arabi in three chapters of his classic work on the metaphysical theory of Tasavvuf, the Fusus al-Hikam. Actually only one of Ibn-e Arabi’s chapters, fifth in order and scarcely three-and-a-half pages in length, deals strictly with Abraham. The other two, devoted as they are to Isaac and Ishmael, complement and conclude the narrative, enabling Askari to fully work out and validate his thesis.
The third book discussed in the early part of the essay, André Gide’s Les Nourritures Terrestres, is peripheral to Askari’s discussion, but nonethe less important as the much needed springboard for the later comparison of the interpretive methods of Kierkegaard and Ibn-e Arabi, Askari’s main objective. Gide provides him with the needed point of departure, and in a curious but not wholly unexpected way, its introduction into the essay has much to do with Askari’s particular writing style, characterised as it is by a brutal and blistering irony, if astonishingly understated.