A Lawyer’s Sojourn In London

A Lawyer’s Sojourn In London

My intellectual sojourn in London is like a ‘journey of pleasure and pain’. It has been a pleasure to have observed the norms of the western society, and a pain because I have started comparing the state of affairs with my country. Landing at Heathrow airport was like a transition through time. A friend received me at the airport. We traveled by tube, to my temporary residence in Primrose Hill. On the way, I observed stunning technological and cultural advances. I found London to be an excessively multicultural, modern and vibrant city. Another challenge for me was learning the ‘art of independent living’. My friend helped me again in learning cooking and cleaning. There, I realized the sacrifice of Asian women. They serve the family, mostly without due appreciation and acknowledgement. Walking in Regent’s Park the next morning, it was surprising to see people of all ages (and genders) jogging with their dogs. I saw the dogs playing with their masters and happy because they could ‘walk with their masters’. Animals are like a privileged class in Europe, whereas in our society, even humans are the most neglected species. Putting these thoughts aside, I tried to jog alongside the people, but I could not make it far, which disillusioned me about my stamina. It gave me a good lesson for healthy living and I joined Nuffield Health the very next day.

Being new in the town, I spent a few days visiting places like a treasure hunter. I felt walking through the corridors of history – from colonial to the present United Kingdom. Walking on the banks of the river Thames was a wonderful experience. However, being raised in a relatively traditional society, romantic couples around me made me a little uncomfortable. The Europeans are generally smart due to exercise and proper healthcare. I found demonstrations of human love and care flooding over the Thames while it is considered taboo in our society. It is, perhaps, as Dr. Iqbal penned, in Tray Reflections, that Christianity conceives God as a symbol of love while Islam a symbol of power. It may be said that God is a symbol of love and power. In fact, I see God as a loving and kind power (Rahman and Raheem)  more than an angry or cruel master. Our strange attitude and a certain social harshness towards others (i.e. poor, children and women) slash their smiles early. Their faces often flashed on the screen of my mind making my luxurious stay in London, somehow, sad.  Anyhow, I started enjoying these mixed feelings of pain and pleasure against Jeremy Bentham’s notion of happiness and hoped that my solicitude might stimulate some positive change in my life. I enjoyed The Pleasures of Philosophy by Will Durant and conversation with God through the medium of my ‘confused prayers’. After shifting from Primrose Hill to spend more time with my fellow students, I found God closer to my heart at Goodenough College in Bloomsbury than a mosque, mandir or church. I realized that God is not confined to any place but lives in the heart of a believer! Then, I understood the words of a Sufi: ta dai masjid, ta dai mandir, ta dai ju kuj tainda, ik bandian da dil na tahwin, tai rab dilan wich rehnda (you may destroy a mosque and a temple and anything else you can, but avoid breaking the heart of the humans as God lives there).

Returning to the Thames again, I may tell that Shakespeare Theatre, London Bridge and the Shard (the highest tower in Europe) are monuments of history and modernity on the river (preserving the old alongside the new gives the city its depth). The British Museum has preserved ancient and modern civilizations that reveal the rise and fall of great empires. The British Library contains historical documents including the 9th century Quran and the original manuscripts of prominent scientists, artists and men of letters. The National Gallery displays the history of arts and painting from 12th to 20th century. The Tower of London sheds light on the history of Britain’s Norman Conquest in the 10th century. Moreover, St. Paul’s Cathedral stands in the middle of the city as a symbol of Christian belief. I observed that people have refused to accept religion as a social requirement and consider it an individual affair. In politics however, religion still seems to play some role: the British government still promotes the Church of England – a specific denomination of religion – while balancing this with an understanding of secularism in social affairs.

In my third week, I visited Lincon’s Inn, the Law Society, the Royal Courts of Justice and the UK Supreme Court. I though of Jinnah, Iqbal and Sir Syed at Lincon’s Inn and imagined their spirits asking questions about Pakistan. I thought about Jinnah and Gandhi, first struggling for the freedom of British India and then parting ways for two nation states. Having a sense of optimism, I think that hope is something that sustains the world. However, I admitted to them that we could not fulfill their expectations in Pakistan. I had to tell them that we generally do not pay respect to law and human rights, particularly the right to life and freedom of religion. Rather, we misuse lawful power to infringe upon rights unlawfully.

We neither comprehend Iqbal’s philosophy of ‘self’ nor Syed’s passion for education and intellectual pluralism. Iqbal’s ‘self’ demands a recurrent evolution in knowledge and morality to strengthen the society. Sayyed sees a wide-open quest for knowledge as a virtue. Instead of developing this ‘self’ and ‘quest’ for the progress of human thought, we have developed a certain anxiety about free ideas and a thirst for materialism. In the heart of Western civilization, I felt the values envisioned by Iqbal, Syed and Jinnah in a restless, self-advancing, self-improving, optimistic, rational, confident and idealistic individual – a person who believes in constant evolution, progress and change in oneself and one’s society. I then turned for a while to present Pakistan and thought about why we have failed to make space for a wide-open public ijtihad to meet the new challenges; why are we failing to improve our institutions to facilitate this within the public as a whole? Iqbal, Jinnah, Syed, all looked a little sad, but still hopeful about the future of Pakistan! I assured them that I would convey their feelings (of a broken promise!) to Pakistan.

In the Royal Court of Justice, I met judged who were wise and willing to listen. I noticed that the lawyers were learned and well prepared. The court clerks were efficient and disciplined. The court proceedings were being recorded to ensure justice. The citizens believe and respect their courts. The people can visit courtrooms like any other public place. Schools and colleges arrange court visits to make the students familiar with the justice system. So the children start learning the relevance of law and the importance of the rule of law from an early age. The Law Society is proactive in ensuring quality legal services through monitoring and continuous training of legal professionals. In Pakistan however, the bar councils seem more active in politics than regulating the legal profession. A visit to the UK Supreme Court was even more informative. Academia and judges collaborate to conduct discussions on important areas of law to bridge the gap between theory and practice. This brought me back to thinking about my country where an academic discussion is generally discouraged in the courts. So we can find facts and law but little jurisprudence in our courts’ judgments. Unfortunately, our institutions fail to develop critical thinking in lawyers, judges and other servants of the state, resulting in poor governance. Critical thinking and questioning are considered a challenge to the settled standards in our society despite the fact these standards do not represent an absolute truth. This is also common in every institution of our society i.e. the family, mosque and school. So we largely suffer from dogmatism and stagnation in every sphere of life.

As I was invited by the University of London, I preferred spending more time there. However, I also participated in academic discussions at Oxford and Cambridge on international law and philosophy of law. I joined discussions at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law and the Royal College of Defense Studies. Spending time with professors at SOAS, Oxford and Cambridge has been a great learning experience for me. I met and conversed with Edward Said (a Palestinian literary theorist and public intellectual who helped found the critical theory of post-colonialism) and Eqbal Ahmad (a Pakistani political scientist, writer and journalist). I found the level of debate and engagement at these institutions very insightful. The universities in the United Kingdom focus on creativity and original research. They introduce students to a variety of views and encourage them to apply and appreciate these ideas in different contexts. The students can even challenge these ideas and differ with their teachers/mentors. Intellectuals from around the world present their ideas, engaging the professors and students in ongoing discourse and research. The people consider that idea cannot freeze and events are contextualised in time and space so they can be revised and/or better understood by employing philosophical, scientific, theological and psychological knowledge of the present time. This multi-perspective conception of knowledge in my view can be helpful for producing fresh thinking in our society.

What makes the West advanced is not raw intellect but their commitment to reason, research, duty, discipline and open debate. Constant engagement makes them informed and better than others in research, technology, development and policy-making. In the West, academia informs the policy making process through journal articles and direct interaction. In our country, however, the academia is rarely consulted by the policymakers. And our policies are generally motivated by short-term objectives and mostly tailored considering the wishes of the chosen few. On the other hand, in my view, the academia will have to assert its due role by confronting authoritarian and extremist narratives, promoting intellectual pluralism in society while maintaining an appreciation for order in collaboration with the institutions of the state.

At weekends, I used to visit Pakistani friends. During travel, I was struck by three announcements: on the tube, ‘mind the gap’; on the bus, ‘there is space on the upper deck’; and in a lift, ‘doors are opening’. These words reminded me that if one realizes his or her present position and keeps an eye on higher objectives, then many doors/opportunities are open. However, the majority of my Pakistani friends seemed to ignore these words and the values of the West including health, education and discipline. I found their kids a little uncomfortable. Perhaps they were unable to reconcile the different cultures within and outside of their homes. I stayed with a Pakistani friend named Iftikhar for few weeks. One day his seven-year-old daughter, Fatima, had an interesting discussion with her mother. Fatima talked about celebrating a Christmas party at her school. Her mother said that they were Muslims and did not celebrate Christmas. Then Fatima brought a book of hers to me and said, “Uncle, look! My book describes the Christmas celebration and my mother says I cannot do it. Why not?” There was an unexplained expression on Fatima’s face! This curiosity to learn needs to be developed in kids living in Pakistan. On another day, Iftikhar’s kids brought me a card saying ‘we love our mum and our dad, but we love our uncle too’. These small stories made me a little attached to London.

On the other extreme, I met some well-educated Pakistanis who appeared more westernized. They think that the present in the West can be the future of the non-West, but ideas like ‘secularism’, ‘enlightenment’ and ‘liberalism’ cannot simply be transplanted in a different soil. These concepts require space for evolution and the recognition of different religious, social, economic and cultural realities in the true spirit of democracy. I believe that every ethnicity, religion and community, national or even post-national, can maintain, evolve and preserve its ‘distinctive consciousness’ while appreciating the values of others. In my opinion, humans should learn and accommodate others’ views. They do not need to be steadfastly attached to unshakeable beliefs, ideas or ideologies.

It is also painful to realize that Muslims are less concerned about spending their wealth in the appropriate direction. In the United Kingdom, I found £25 million in the account of a mosque. Spending on mosques is not wrong. However, what bothers me is that Muslims are failing to spend more on education. They are reluctant to spend money on trusts, schools, libraries and research centers. The Muslims praise Allah and His Prophet, but they are not willing to act upon their teachings: to ‘read’ in His name. They consider that religion is under threat from controversial ideas rather than realizing that Islam is suffering more due to their own lack of space for new ideas. It means we are not prepared to acknowledge our fault and to learn from the past and the present. This makes me question whether we are true to our religion and even to ourselves. Are we sincere to our country? Is Islam a religion of fixed slogans with no room for critical learning? Anyway, when I took account of my spending in London, I found that I spent more on education and little on purchasing humble gifts for others.

Now coming to worldly affairs: we see splendid infrastructure, transport facilities, food and environment, service-oriented schools, hospitals, local councils, civil service, courts and fair business. Are these not our basic civic needs? Islam talks about Masalah (community welfare) that can be only be achieved by providing the best facilities. In any case, what good is religion without good (pious) conduct towards others? Do we not consider corruption as creativity, fraud as cleverness, exploitation as smartness and breach of the law as a symbol of power? In the West, public welfare, fairness and the rule of law are seen as positive goals. Schools, health clubs, mental health and recreational programs and even big shopping malls are established and managed by local/community councils. Bad infrastructure is considered an insult to the inhabitants of the locality. However, we do not seem to mind bad infrastructure and live in slums without parks, health clubs, pure water, a clean environment and better roads! Our youth is happy to escort and campaign with their leaders, but without demanding even basic rights (i.e. education, health, a clean environment and employment). We salute the wealthy and corrupt and do not respect our real heroes — those who are self-made and honest. We are proud of doing nothing. We believe that God will help us because we are the best ummah. Remember, God helps those who help themselves.

Europe has made significant progress on the basis of optimism, scientific invention and economic growth. However, it needs to find ways to maintain and continue its progress. It has to challenge the consolidation of the global business elite, ensuring a fairer distribution of money to ordinary people and providing a predictable and secure future for them. It has to address issues of exploitation and hold the super-elite accountable before trade unions and state institutions. It also needs to share economic progress with other parts of the world. Modernity and individualism may be balanced with a little simplicity and stronger social bonds. Moreover, the West should avoid imposing its ideas on others. The West and non-West, in fact, need to establish ‘ethics of engagement’ and appreciate historical, religious and cultural differences to develop an ‘overlapping world view’ providing peace and prosperity for mankind.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Zia Ullah Ranjah

Author: Zia Ullah Ranjah

The writer is a partner at Jurist Panel. He also teaches at Punjab University Law College (PULC). He can be reached at [email protected].