The Rustic Rebel: A Tribute to a Great Humanist Thinker of Rural Bangladesh
14 April, 2007
Popularly called the "Moha Guru" in Bangladeshi intellectual circle – Aroj Ali Matubbar (1899 -1985) was a truly homegrown philosopher of Bangladesh without any formal education. He did not attended any school or institution of academic learning. Yet, after his death in 1985, Aroj Ali Matubbar came to be regarded as one of the most brilliant rationalists the country has ever produced, and an iconoclast who was not afraid to speak out against entrenched belief and superstitions which easily lead to religious fanaticism.
With his scraggly beard, the dark, gaunt man, clad in rumpled punjabi and pyjama, a fountain pen sticking out of his breast pocket, could very well be a teacher of Islamic education at the village maktab; his roughly hewn, sunburnt face, would place him in any number of other rural callings. But Aroj Ali Matubbor, primarily a farmer who had done stints as a land surveyor, was no ordinary villager. Behind that rustic exterior lay an extraordinary intellect and a remarkable human being. He is barely known in his own country, except among a handful of liberal intellectuals. This is unsurprising in a society that is not overly fond of people who ask awkward questions on matters of faith – matters thought to have been settled for eternity.
The man probably loved nothing better than to ask why. It is unclear where he got that often discomfiting habit from, but a tragedy in his adolescent years must have turned him on. His mother had died and an all too human desire to preserve her memory led him to have her photographed before the burial. This, the religious leaders of the village community declared, was a great sin for which there was no requital. They therefore refused to perform the janaza, the obligatory congregational prayer for a Muslim deceased before his or her burial. Why? Aroj Ali asked. Why should his mother, a devout Muslim, be deprived of the last prayer that was her due? His entreaties were in vain. His mother was buried without the janaza.
In other circumstances and places, the matter would probably have been resolved and his mother would have been given the customary janaza. But the incident was real enough for Aroj Ali. And he soon realized what happened to his dead mother was only a small reflection of the irrationality and obscurantism that pervaded the society. The custodians of religion in his native village never answered the agonizing question he asked. That did not prevent him from asking some more questions. In fact, his propensity to inquire grew and spread. As he put it, “ For eighteen long years after my mother’s death, I strove hard to melt down certain blind religious beliefs with the heat of philosophy, poured the contents in the mould of science, and came up with a list of questions”. These question were later elaborated in his “In the Quest for Truth”, his most important little work. His questioning was often met with hostility: he was summoned before a court of law, the publication of his book was prohibited, and he was threatened with physical violence. But, the rebel that he was, he went on asking questions.
The range of his inquiry was large. On the other had, the man never seemed to worry about finessing the formulation of his inquiry, or of its results, with the intellectual sophistication that comes naturally to philosophers of the same genre as his -- the rationalist-humanists of the west. He was more interested in spelling out some truths, including home truths, and cared little about a label for his thinking. And you could smell rural Bangladesh, his home and audience, in much of what he expounded. Consider the metaphor he uses: “Just as a hungry ox tears his tether and gorges himself on crops growing on other’s land, so does the mind of man transcend the bounds of religion and rush to philosophy and science to relieve its hunger.” One only wishes the Bengali propensity to reason and inquire were as strong as that.
The themes that his critical mind probes range from simple religious beliefs to biology and the theory of evolution, to notions of creationism, to physics and astronomy. It is, however, religious concepts and believes that occupies him the most. Is it true, for example, he asks, that the land as well as human effort in Bangladesh is less fruitful today than before– there was less barkat, in parlance of ignorance – because people do not any longer have religious faith, or iman ? If the answer is yes, as many ‘God-fearing’ people believe it is, one needs to ask why then nations who have no iman at all, the infidels, are far more productive? Or, if it is true that a particular angel of God has been assigned to control the wind and the rain, why then do cyclones ravage Chittagong, mostly inhabited by Muslims, and never Varanasi, which is almost entirely Hindu? Had Aroj Ali lived today he would have asked how was it that the recent Asian tsunami wreaked havoc mostly in the Aceh province of Indonesia, which was almost entirely Muslim, and home to resurgent Islamic fundamentalism?
These are hardly teasers. They deserve serious consideration because they touch what Aroj Ali considers the heart of the matter: these beliefs and notions fails the test of reason. He does not flinch from extending the test to beliefs far more fundamental to religion. These include questions as diverse as the nature of being of God; what distinguishes Him from humans; the nature of His will; His kindness; Heaven and Hell; predestination; the duties of the angels; the ascent (the meraj ) of the Prophet Muhammad (SM) to the high heavens to meet with God; the supposed virtue in slaughter of animals; and a host of other ideas. It appears that there are no sacred cows in his scheme of thinking.
He shows how orthodox thinking falls short of a good answer to the questions he raises; it is also ridded with contradictions. To pick a few examples: in Islam, as in other religions, God has so shape or form. The non-corporal nature God makes it impossible for Him to sit or stand in the sense in which we use those words. Yet, in the holy books He is sometimes depicted as one sitting on his throne. How is one to reconcile the two irreconcilables? I am not sure whether Aroj Ali was aware of the following riposte to that question by Malik Ibn Anas, founder of the Maliki school of Islamic thought: “The sitting [God’s] is well-known, its modality is unknown, belief in it is obligatory and questioning it is a heresy”. But he was well aware of the broad argument, which has been repeated many times, and which of course has nothing to do with reason. Similarly, he asks, if God is omnipresent, why was it necessary for the Prophet to ascend the high heavens to meet with Him?
The critical questions that Aroj Ali often raises on certain facets of religion are not meant to mock or “hurt the religious sentiments of pious Muslims”, the kind of allegation that has largely been responsible for a lack of critical thinking on religion. He is only calling for honest answers to what he considers legitimate questions. He also takes a critical view of received wisdom in other religions, making forays into the tale of Bhagwan Indra, the Ramayanic tale of the struggle between Rama and Ravana , where he unreservedly sides with the latter, and the mythology of gods in various religions. And he examines issues picked from religious beliefs with the same instrument of logic and reason as when he discusses what causes tides or lightning and thunder, always juxtaposing the scientific reasons behind natural phenomena and popular notions.
Neither does his critical examination of religious beliefs distract him from the social ills of his time. His brief discussion on hila marriage brings out the innate social injustice of the system that is weighed heavily against women. His discussions on baseless popular religious notions are often motivated by an urge to rid society of superstitions that have hindered social and economic progress.
Born in a remote village of Barisal to a poor farming family, Aroj ali had no formal education. A self-taught man, he bought books whenever he could and begged and borrowed them when he could not. The spirit of inquiry led him to read everything he could lay his hands on. A tremendous thirst for knowledge drove him, and that too in a society where book learning is a privilege of a few, and hankering after the truth is limited to fewer still. It was therefore a fitting that he donated just about all he owned at the end of his life to build a public library in his village. Characteristically, he declared: “In my view, a library is far superior to a mandir, a mosque or a church”
Aroj Ali proved by his art of living that it is quite possible for an individual to live an honest life without necessarily having to bind oneself with the trappings of ritual dominated faith. He was a totally honest man as well as a self-made one. His dealings with fellow human beings in financial matters were above reproach. But his honesty extended well beyond that. In the final analysis, I believe his honesty lay in the utter congruity between how he reasoned and how he lived.
In the matter of his own death too he strove for a rare consistency of reasoning. The thought of death rarely fails to concentrate the mind. Its approach would also enfeeble the thinking in the most rational of individuals. Not so with Aroj Ali. He donated his corpse to Barisal Medical College. He also gave his reasoning, which was primarily that the body would be useful to the college as a teaching institution, while, in any case, it was unlikely to receive much respect from the religious establishment, if it were to be buried.
Aroj Ali Matubbor died nineteen years ago this month. Sadly, the forces of obscurantism that he was so ready to battle, have only gained in strength in our society over these many years. In his last will and testament there was a small wish: that his death anniversary be commemorated, humbly, with expenses met from the tiny trust fund he had set up. We ourselves do not need to be humble about it.
Reader may want to get a taste of Aroj Ali's creative thoughts in following internet site: The Quest of Truth.