15 December 2018

Даладағы жарық

Ибраһим Абай Құнанбайұлы

It has been a long time – too long – since I revisited the philosophical poetry of the great Ibrahim ‘Abai’ Qunanbaiuly. I first read the man’s work as I was beginning to write this blog, in preparation for my ill-fated trip to his home country of Qazaqstan. I read his Words, I appreciated them, and they did direct me to a certain degree, but I did not understand them. Though he expressed himself simply, and forthrightly, I did not understand him. Given my intellectual temper at the time it would be too easy to blame that on an education which privileged the modern continental philosophical tendencies, but in retrospect I simply did not have the age or the knowledge or the ability to read them in the spirit in which they were meant. They were meant as an exhortation to his people to improve their souls, but also as an exuberant expression of spiritual freedom, the light of what the Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov would call ‘iranstvo’, the Iranian civilisational principle.

Abai was both a deep thinker – hence his cognomen, which means ‘thoughtful’ or ‘cautious’ in қазақ тілі – and a proud Qazaq patriot. He loved his people deeply. His patriotism, however, led him not to boast of the Qazaq people or to belittle others; indeed, where he believed he could learn something better from the Qazaqs’ neighbours, he sat, listened and paid attention. And when his own people showed themselves to be cunning or lazy or over-proud or greedy or grasping, Abai spared them nothing, but he criticised them with an unrelenting harshness. He lived by the saying: Дос жылатып айтады; душпан күлдіртіп айтады. And it is because he wanted to be a true friend to his people that he held up this most unflattering mirror to their weaknesses.

First among the influences on Abai was the traditional ‘zhyrau’ tendency. People infinitely better-versed in Qazaq religious history than I am (like Kemelbekov, Abdurahmanov and Begdauletova here), have pointed out that the poetic tradition had some roots in the pre-Islamic, shamanistic Tengri religion of the Qazaq people – a religion, in point of fact, not unlike that of their distant kin the Mongols, Manchus and Evenks; and a poetic tradition not too unlike the Shijing 《詩經》 and the Chuci 《楚辭》 of distant Chinese antiquity! ‘On the one hand’, this ancient Qazaq poetic tradition ‘seeks the Promised Land; on the other’ it appeals ‘to the people, drawing their attention to the imperfection of their existence’. The rôle of the aqyn (ақын) in this society had a set of self-sacrificial and remonstrative duties that ‘shamanistic’ poets like Qu Yuan 屈原 would deeply appreciate. Kemelbekov, Abdurahmanov and Begdauletova call this tragœdian-shamanistic element in Qazaq philosophy the ‘zhyrau’ (жырау) element. The tragic zhyrau sensibility absolutely affected Abai and the depth of his moralist and poetic temperament – ‘Man comes crying into this world, and departs it in sorrow,’ goes one of the more famous lines from his Words.

Secondly, Abai took a number of influences from the West – though it deserves mention that the West, to him, includes the world of Islam in general, and Iranian Islam in particular. He was deeply influenced by the venerable Islamic tradition of tasawwuf, both in philosophy properly speaking and in the poetic tradition. Like so many other of Iran’s neighbours, Qazaqstan could not but be affected by that nation’s love of the artistry of the word. Abai himself knew, loved and lived in the Persian ‘Sûfî’ poetic works of Firdûsî, Rûmî, Hâfez, Nizâmî, Sa‘dî, Shirâzî and ‘Ali-Shir Nûa‘î. (Abai’s debt to the Persian Sûfîs is apparent even in the first of his philosophical Words, in which he pines for the life of such a mystic, but finds its demands of a serene and peaceful heart beyond him.) Despite his presumably belonging to the folkish, traditional Hanafî school of Sunnî jurisprudence, Abai’s Islamic piety is very much of a poetic, ‘Persian’ flavour rather than an ‘Arabic’ one. In addition to this, Abai was intellectually influenced by the classical Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – and especially their student, the Shî’ite Neo-Platonist ‘Second Teacher’ Abû Nasr al-Fârâbî. One sees the trace of Abai’s ethical Platonism in multiple places, but particularly in his meditations on the virtues and their interchangeable nature – though often this is stated negatively in regard to the character of his contemporaries. His insistence that the love of wealth has ruined his people’s character by causing parents to neglect their children’s moral education and also by promoting inequality is, furthermore, drawn from the pages of the Republic.

Third, Abai was deeply sympathetic to the Russian narodniki, largely on account of his profound friendship with the socialist-revolutionary exile Evgeniy Petrovich Mikhaelis. He is therefore considered to be a ‘radical democrat’ and a ‘socialist’, and indeed, the two men did share many of the same political views. But it would be a mistake to simply stop there. Abai’s well-attested (and indeed, vocal) Russophilia was as much cultural as it was political. Again, being a poet, he was drawn toward Pushkin and Lermontov in particular – and through them, Goethe, Schiller and Byron. Abai’s Words are saturated with the conviction that the Qazaqs should not belittle or despise their Russian neighbours, but instead hold them in high regard and learn from them whatever they can, particularly in the realm of culture.

In retrospect, Abai has proven a deeper and more lasting influence on me than I would have thought possible, in my years coming back from Qazaqstan. A great deal of my own Persophilia and Russophilia comes to me mediated through the great Qazaq aqyn’s luminous interpretations, in verse and in prose, of both cultural legacies. Indeed, though I am tied by blood to the English, German, Yugoslav and Jewish peoples of Europe, the fact that I seem to occupy a ‘Eurasian’ position in my attachments to the traditional humanisms of China, Russia and Iran – that too comes straight from Abai. The Qazaq people had, and still have, every right to be paranoid, as they have been dominated throughout history by these empires on their doorsteps. Indeed, the gæostrategic ‘peculiarity’ of Qazaq statecraft, the multi-vector foreign policy which dates back at least to the genius statesman Abylai Khan, is largely defensive in posture. Yet Abai took a different approach. His Words synthesised the best of the ‘Chinese’, the traditional Turkic, the Iranian and the Russian – and indeed, further afield, classical Athenian Greek – into something truly distinct and beautiful.

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