Izetbegovic Alija (1925-2003 CE) علِي عزت بيغوفِيتش
For a man to endure the pressures of life, he must descend to the ninth circle of the inferno. That means enduring the unendurable and accepting the unacceptable. Accepting everything one fears, absolutely everything. And just when it seems that all the troubles of this world have already befallen him, that he has drank all the cups of bitterness except for the most bitter one, it means to take that one and drink it all. There are people who are said to have gone gray overnight. Are they the ones who descended to the very bottom? And when they returned, all that was left of them was something that can face the entire world, heaven and earth, and can look any truth in the eye. Everything that could have happened did happen to them and they have nothing left to fear, there is no fear left. They are the ones who are prepared to live their life, no matter what it may be like, to endure with serenity and dignity all the way to the end. And those who can endure life, can endure death. For life is more difficult and more dangerous than death.’ – Alija Izzetbegovich in his Notes from Prison: 1983-88.
Born in the year 1925 CE into a renowned family of Muslims from South Slav, which for five hundred years belonged to Islam, Izzet Begovic graduated from the University of Sarajevo and took his degrees in arts, law and science. It was as an activist of the Islamic organization floated by Sheik Muhammad Khariji and Sheikh Cassim Dobreje, both of whom drew inspiration from Imam Hasan ul Banna, the founder of the Ikhwanul Muslimoon movement in Egypt that Begovic first appeared on the social scene of Bosnia. Accused, in 1946, of working for the cause of religious freedom and of human rights, he was arrested and confined to a three-year term of imprisonment. He was in his twentieth year then and this was to be the first in a series of cruel incarcerations to which the communist regime of Joseph Marshal Tito was to subject the emerging leader of a new Islamic awareness that was sweeping his land. Joseph Tito had, after the end of the Second World War, grabbed political authority in Yugoslavia under the aegis of his Socialist party and by the stipulated three years of Begovic’s imprisonment he was soon to meet the young Islamic activist in a very similar setting once again.
In 1949, when many of the renowned scholars and other Islamic activists in the country were arrested by the order of a special military court, the young Begovic again figured in the list of detainees active, as he was, behind the working of the Young Muslim Organization. This time he was sentenced to a five year term of imprisonment. His age then: twenty-three. It was thus that in the very prime of his youth, up to the age of twenty-eight, he lived a life under imprisonment for the convictions which he held close to his heart. Nor was his appointment with the prison cell confined to those early years of his life. In the August of 1983, at the age of fifty-eight, he was again sentenced to fourteen years in jail together with a group of eleven other Bosnian intellectuals, including a poetess. This sentence was passed at a semi-secret trial by a court in Sarajevo for what it called his ‘fundamentalist digression.’ This group of intellectuals, called the Sarajevo-12, was in fact, led by Begovic himself. It was, indeed, not without his own reasons that, in answer to a question on Izzetbegovic by his friend and former Egyptian President, Jamal `Abdul Nasser, Tito once replied that Begovic, in himself, was far more dangerous than the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon of Egypt. It would seem appropriate and relevant that it was while he was serving his prison sentence that Begovic wrote the lines that were later to be published in his Notes from prison: 1983-88:
“There are paradoxes. If there were no night, we would be deprived of the magnificent image of a starry sky. Thus light deprives us of ‘vision,’ and darkness helps us ‘see.’”
In a life lived in regular accompaniment of the dubious sheltering offered by Yugoslav prison cells, Izzetbegovic emerged, by the last years of the twentieth century, as a statesman and visionary who easily subscribed to a particularly inspiring blend of the religious and the secular. It was while serving his prison sentence of fourteen years in the Foca Prison of the former Yugoslavia that he first composed the basic material for a manuscript which by 1998 was printed under the title Notes from Prison: 1983-88. Even as Izzetbegovic’s experience of prison was not exclusive to his case, so too was his writing from behind bars not limited to his experience alone. Indeed, others like Syed Qutb - who wrote his phenomenal In the shade of the Qur'an while serving sentences in prison - too produced works in isolation that incredibly invigorated the movement that he led from jail.
However, and as Begovic himself declares, his Notes from Prison is more reminiscent of a personal diary than a well-arranged thematic commentary which Syed Qutb’s prison ‘scribbling’ ultimately, and famously, became. Nevertheless, his Notes from Prison will remain a valid and invaluable document on the workings of a mind that refused to submit itself to the same imprisonment endured by the body that housed its defiant, unconquerable, spirit. The manuscript is therefore also a testimony to the indomitable desire that propels all human aspirations for freedom and liberty. Indeed, Izzetbegovic opens his preface with the candid statement:
“‘What the reader is about to embark upon (and perhaps read) is my escape to freedom. To my regret, this, of course, was not a real escape, but I wish it were. This was the only possible escape from the Foca prison, with its high walls and iron bars — an escape of mind and thought. Had I been able to escape, I would have given preference to the real, physical escape.’”
At Foca, Begovic knew that while he could not speak openly on many things, he could at least think. This uncontestable facility he decided upon using to the maximum. He recounts how at first, he had silent discussions on all kinds of things. He commented on the books that he read, on the epoch-making and turbulent events that were taking place in the world outside his prison space. Following the disastrous experiences of communist governments of the European East, it was indeed a period of a global upheaval in terms of thought and belief. The world was undergoing a transformation of immense proportions that was to change the lives of millions of people and deflect the eventide of history in a different direction. It was a period of ferment wherein the world that had been for long a bipolar one was on the verge of becoming unipolar. In Izzetbegovic’s own words:
“The value of these thoughts, therefore, is not in the thoughts themselves, but rather in the circumstances they were written in. On this side of the wall there was the total silence of the prison, and on the outside there were inklings of a tempest that was to become a hurricane in 1988, that would crush the Berlin Wall, sweep away Honecker and Ceausescu, destroy the Warsaw Treaty and shake the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. I had an almost physical sensation of the passage of time and its phases changing right before my eyes.”
The first of these notes which initially came out from his pen in 1984 indicates that for the first whole year in prison in 1983 he had not thought of putting his thoughts to paper. More precisely, however, the first year must have been a period of introspection, investigation, trial and adjustment – things that normally pass over any prisoner of conscience. He then started taking notes, secretly at first, but more conspicuously as time passed. This continued for almost everyday of the next five years. Thus, thirteen little notebooks came about, in the format that technicians call A-5, written in the smallest script and deliberately illegible, so that Mirsada, his typist who would later type them down, took great pains in copying them. Interestingly, and as may be expected, ‘dangerous’ words such as religion, Islam, communism, freedom, democracy and authority when they appeared in those notes were replaced by other words that only the author himself knew. These were words that years later even Begovic himself found strange and hardly understandable. Note number 3676 marked the last of his notes which he had penned down on September 30, 1988: a day when he was faced with still another eight years in prison. It was still a day when death itself was his greatest hope for physical liberation.
Whenever he finished a notebook, he never left it in his own locker in prison. He deposited it with a colleague — a prisoner convicted for murder. Thus, only one notebook, the one being ‘worked on,’ could be confiscated at one time. The prison authorities, in fact, searched the prisoners’ lockers looking for ‘dangerous things.’ Dangerous things were weapons — and manuscripts. As Begovic himself tells us, ‘Everyone was equally subject to searches, only some of us were ‘more equal.’’ His friend, being a peasant merely had his locker just looked at. Towards the end of Begovic’s imprisonment, another friend from prison, Veselin K., convicted for forgery, carried ten of these notebooks outside in a chess box. When he delivered the package to Begovic’s children later, he refused any remuneration.
Commenting on his Notes, Begovic himself said it best when he explained that the Notes
‘….are, to an extent, a comment on key events made by a man who was prevented from taking part in them, but who had plenty of time to follow them and to give his own judgments — however right or wrong. These are thoughts on freedom - the physical and the inner - on life and destiny, on people and events, on books read and their authors, on imagined, unwritten letters to my children — in other words, on everything that could have crossed a prisoner’s mind during those long 2,000 days (and nights).’
The Appendix to the book, which is, in fact, a collection of parts of almost 1,500 letters that Begovic received from his children while in prison, was a later addition. He would later say of these letters that if literature was his intellectual escape to freedom, these letters were his emotional escape. There is thus new meaning in the publication of this Appendix which also provides for a good picture of the time and the circumstances, and more importantly, of the thoughts and the atmosphere in the family of a political prisoner. While Begovic had originally planned to convert the crude notes from their original format to a consistent, complete text, he could not find the time or the opportunity to do so. Thus he never managed to get any further than the original version itself, not that much of it could be improved upon in any case. Thus Notes from Prison: 1983-88 even after publication, and checking and editing by his son, Bakir, stands almost raw, almost the same way that it was originally produced.
Earlier, in 1970, he had authored the book, Islamic Declaration, which was soon to create a great furor in the political circles within Yugoslavia. Besides this, Begovic is also the accomplished author of several other works like The Problems of Islamic revival, Study of the Qur'an, The Message of Hijrah, The Muslim wife, Mother and other related topics. Notwithstanding the high quality of treatment in all his works, Islam between East and West, written sometime before his sudden arrest in 1983, stands out as the veritable Magnum opus amongst his major works. Speaking about it, Tariq Quraishi had so correctly remarked,
“Rational and yet not insulting to the emotions, it exalts the spirit without denigrating the body. But what stands it apart as a landmark is its transcendental wisdom expressed in a style inherent to all noble ideas. Doubtless, its appeal will go beyond its time because it embraces life – and there is no theme greater than life.”
Begovic was imprisoned even before he could complete the bibliography of this grandest of his works, replete, as it is, with some of the most thought provoking and compelling logic of expression based on a comprehensive understanding of both worlds – that of the east as well of the west. However this lack of a proper bibliography has not taken away anything from its immense and wide appeal.
To a world that has become rife with the worst persecutions and brutality Alija Ali Izzetbegovic emerged as the saving grace from heaven on high. His strident and compelling criticism against all the materialistic ideologies of the day, which seek to see in man nothing but the mere instrument of a mechanical system, have served to bring to the forefront the very turbulence and strife that have become so characteristic of the modern world. For as Begovic wrote so relevantly in Notes from Prison: 1983-88:
‘…. for a man to endure the pressures of life, he must descend to the ninth circle of the inferno. That means enduring the unendurable and accepting the unacceptable. Accepting everything one fears, absolutely everything. And just when it seems that all the troubles of this world have already befallen him, that he has drank all the cups of bitterness except for the most bitter one, it means to take that one and drink it all. There are people who are said to have gone gray overnight. Are they the ones who descended to the very bottom? And when they returned, all that was left of them was something that can face the entire world, heaven and earth, and can look any truth in the eye. Everything that could have happened did happen to them and they have nothing left to fear, there is no fear left. They are the ones who are prepared to live their life, no matter what it may be like, to endure with serenity and dignity all the way to the end. And those who can endure life, can endure death. For life is more difficult and more dangerous than death.’
The special position of his Notes from Prison notwithstanding, the beauty and, indeed, the specialty of Islam Between East and West has been Begovic’s treatment that accords the exigencies of the age its own due importance while, at the same time, highlighting the necessity for all such exigencies of time and space to always conform to those very human values that stand above, and beyond, time itself. He had, in the process of delineating the very essence of civilization and culture through the agency of a remarkable lucidity of prose, so successfully demonstrated the very lofty position held by Islam in the formulation of the highest ideals in human life. Begovic has, very correctly, presented Islam as the only alternative position between asceticism and a God-denying materialism; as the only panacea for all human ills; as the only optimum way which successfully deals with all the requirements of the human psyche. In many ways Islam Between East and West which beautifully and convincingly depicts Islam as a powerful, yet delicate, combination of literature, art and the sciences together with it stands between spiritualism and materialism, virtually posits itself in the role of the guiding light for a humanity standing at the cross roads of history towards the true realization of the path of proper conduct and thought. Indeed, in this depiction the vision and thought of Begovic, which encompasses as varied subjects as the oil paintings at the Cistern chapel to the sayings of Mao Zedong, will truly leave the reader wonder-struck, if not breathless. In the breadth of vision and range of contents which it professes, Islam Between East and West will, undoubtedly, fall into that category of world classics which come but once in a hundred years.
In his Problems of the Islamic revival, which is, in fact, a collection of essays which were written at different times, Begovic has sought to identify the malaise of the Ummah and to seek the countering cure. As early as September 1967, the year of the six-day-war between the Arabs and the Zionist entity, he had written that there was a new awareness in all corners of the Islamic world. Something is definitely stirring, he wrote. And none will be able to stop it either. However, that, too, cannot be called true revival. Nevertheless, it will no doubt represent the signs of the upcoming renaissance. Is Islam the reason for the decadence of the Muslim world? Is not the departure of Islam from the lives of the individual and the society the actual cause for this decadence? It is Begovic’s contention, and conviction, here that this is, indeed, the case. But Begovic had his note of caution, too, for in Notes from Prison he warns:
‘There are people who accumulate knowledge without expanding their views. The latter is achieved only through ideas.’
In the same vein, he goes on to affirm that today, in the Islamic world, we are witness to a new life and desire that is resounding within its body politic. We are today in the grip of a constant revolution; a movement; a yearning after knowledge and research. This is in spite of all the temporary setbacks and obstacles that are being overcome. It is certain that in the coming years this very desire and yearning which puts forward a genuine pattern of Islamic thought and exploits all the resources with which the Islamic world abounds, through the process of Islamic resurgence will shock and stun the entire world; definitely. Let each and every Muslim become the partakers and participants of this new resurgence. As can be seen here, closest to his heart was Begovic’s desire to offer the young generation of Muslims a new paradigm of hope as well as the instruments for just such an orientation. His great hopes, notwithstanding, Begovic was ever the realist, in his understanding of the potentials and pitfalls within the Muslim Ummah. Writing in his Notes from Prison, he stated:
‘How big is disappointment? As big as hope was. Big hopes create big disappointments.’
Begovic was, however, never one to be confined to an activism within the academic field alone. Indeed, he was soon to find a regular place of his own in the national and international media by virtue of his involvement in the socio-political affairs of his country. It was this social activism that, after a career as a legal adviser which spanned 25 years, prompted him to organize the Party for Democratic Action (PDA) in May 1990. The general elections held in the October of the same year saw his party coming to power with a huge majority. He was subsequently elected as the President of Bosnia – in fact, as the first president of the country. It was after this, on the 11th of March, 1992, that a general referendum was carried out concerning the question of independence from the erstwhile Yugoslavia. With the majority of the people voting for independence, Begovic decided in favor of the same and declared Bosnia-Herzegovina an independent republic. The atrocious attacks that ensued thereafter owing to the opposition of neighboring Serbia, and the heroic defense by the Bosnians – despite European machinations to starve and roast them within the walls of Sarajevo, is well on the records and a legend. (BAQ)
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