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Gellner’s Islamic Nietzscheans

This materialist Islam is earthy, hedonistic, erotic and sensual. Jacques Berque, writing about the inner structure and life of North African tribes in 1955, wrote: ‘These saints… help us to understand the specific traits of the style of life resulting from a ‘saintly origin’. Their prestige is unconnected with any idea of merit, any moral evaluation … [they have] fewer inhibitions. The saint is he who lives fully. One allows nature to speak through him, even in the form of unbridled desires… One seeks through him a kind of complicity with heaven.’ The connection is the unbridled spirit of nature. Berque comments that ‘This saint can turn his life into a kind of carnival. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, one may say of him that he can be the warmest of all warm beasts.’

Saint worship was a means of achieving Muslim identity, especially for those not approaching the faith through the Book. Reverence for the saints was always conjoined with irony in some quarters. General Daumas, French consul at the court of Amir Abd el Kader wrote: ‘There is always a snake in a zawiya’ (maraboutic lodge). Secular warrior chiefs competed with the saints and so their ambivalence was understandable. Even as late as 1914 historian Ch.-R. Ageron, who in 1899 had reported that ‘ maraboutism is the real religion of the natives of Africa Minor’, could report that; ‘Muslim Algerians … remained as faithful to their broherhoods and indulged with the same good conscience and even enthusiasm the cult of their saints, as according to all indications they did prior to 1930.’

It’s a religious style born out archaic conditions serving illiterate tribes. Resolving feudal disputes, organizing festivals, witnessing collective oaths were what the marabouts did. The spirit that Gide recognized was the Nietzschean Apollonian one of ecstatic liberation and naturalness. It was anti-ascetic. It didn’t revere an abstract, deified monistic concept. It did not embody rigorous intellectual training and knowledge, a dour and impressive, all encompassing moral tone, a stiff-necked, puritanian rigor . It was, as Berque noted, life as carnival, as acceptance and celebration of ones nature.

Vanessa Maher notes how this style of religion affects attitudes to work, kin, women and government. Women are not veiled, they work, brides are exchanged between social groups that are well defined and visible, religion is found in the festivals not in any scripturalist form, and the women participate fully in them. This contrasts with the Reformed Muslims, who have an urban style which, says Gellner, is ‘based on commercial or bureaucratic employment, in which womanfolk are secluded, and veiled when they come out, where the market is (for the family if not the bride) relatively freer and less kin –constrained, where bride price is high and indeed the object of inflationary pressure, where groups are more ambiguous and ill-defined, and where ritual life is more sober, rule bound, scripturalist, individualistic, anonymous and has a much more marked tendency to exclude women.’

Maher writes that there is a tension between these two visions of Islam, clearly apparent at the boundary between small market towns and the villages where ‘Everyone goes to the hedra [ecstatic dancing under marabouts patronage] except the Shurfa [descendants of Mohammed] who say that it is a scene of licence… Although cultivated Arabs and Arabised Berbers come to [the village] from [the town] they regard the proceedings with explicit contempt and call them barbarous.’ Maher comments that ‘… the hedra … can be viewed as an assertion of the validity of Berber cultural forms, which wherever they come into contact with Arab values, are demeaned…’

The old style is demeaned by its rival, and historical circumstance has meant that this rival is by far the most dominant style. But the reasons for the dominance of Reformed Islam are clear: its severe Puritanism, its sobriety, literacy, formal egalitarianism, Unitarianism, individualism that spurns mediation with a deity or any supernatural forces, its lack of a clergy nor caste nor priesthood but only an open literate class of scribes who are merely exegetes and guardians, all these make it an excellent religion for an urban, mobile, anonymous and literate population. Ali Merad writes, ‘ the creation of a petite bourgeoisie converted to European civilization diminished the field in which maraboutism could operate. The petite bourgeoisie (teachers, civil servants in central or local government, entrepreneurs) was almost cut off from the people … Moreover, the use of its leisure (and no doubt its concern with respectability) prevented it from taking part in collective religious and folklore displays.’ Reformed Islam requires values and behaviour exactly continuous with those norms of all middle classes everywhere. Threats arise on both sides: from the poorer sections of the population who find the demands of the puritans too demanding for too little reward (if you ain’t got nothing, then you ain’t got nothing to lose by bouts of ecstatic earthy immediately gratifying pleasures), on the other from tendencies of the educated to secularise.

The Reformed Islam was also a form of proto-Nationalism that didn’t need to be overtly nationalistic to achieve a nascent nationalism. By seeing off its religious rival, it was the only candidate for theological sanction and a programme of nationalist identity. As Gellner writes, for many nations, ‘[w]ehen Independence came, Reformist Islam was virtually the only usable ideology deeply implanted and intelligible inside the country.’ Blair’s claim that Islam is incompatible with modern liberal democracy is belied by so much evidence, but this as well. Islamic reform succeeded precisely because it was compatible. As Gellner puts it: ‘ It was once supposed that Islam was incompatible with modernization, or with the requirements of industrial society. This may well be true of the erstwhile Apollonian of Biskra, which once was typical enough of a very great part of the rural and tribal Muslim world. But the severe discipline of puritan Islam may in fact be compatible with, or positively favourable to, modern social organization.’

Interestingly, co-existence has been the result of the Reformist movement and the dominance of the scripturalist version of Islam. Algeria, for example, sees the old stylists in charge of oil, the army and state whilst the bourgeois and the ulama look after business and legitimacy. And Puritan Islam can adapt to modernity along the whole political spectrum, from political conservativism to radicalism. Neo-liberal politicians favour the conservative over the radical. Saudi Arabia is feted. Gadaffi looked like ‘a kind of Reformist-Maoism’, as Gellner puts it.

Gadaffi left his tribal units under the impact of oil. He was able to exaggerate his Reformist zeal given the small scale of his population and the erosion of rural encampments. He was taken out because he smelled of Maoist radicalism to the USA and offended the politically ultra –conservative Saudi’s. It was politics not religion that decided his fate. Turkey emerged from the Ottoman Empire. It has a strong state and a weak society, reversing the traditional Muslim social organisation. Turkey modernized against Islam. Turks largely internalized a secular modern state and therefore didn’t need to adopt Reformist Islam. It already was a strong Muslim state and so the need to purify the alternative traditional, rural spirit was absent. Turkey is troubled by religious opposition precisely because Reformist Islam is not the state. Ottoman/Turkey is an exception to the rule, although, as Gellner himself admits, it’s a pretty huge exception.

What makes Islam special is that unlike other monotheistic religions, ‘Islam is the blueprint of a social order.’ Islam officially has no clergy and no church organization because church and society are coextensive so that, as Tocqueville put it, ‘… all the acts of civil and political life are regulated more or less by religious law.’ Theologian and lawyer are conflated roles. Its history explains this. Islam, unlike Christianity, was rapidly successful from the off. It never had to presume political modesty. Its revealed message was complete. Political success made it less necessary to hand over power to others. Having a completed revelation meant there was no room for rival schemes. These two factors made Islam pervasive.

The place of Islam in society is very different from the place of rival religions. Questions that make sense of alternatives don’t make sense of Islam. For example, in the Augustan age, still regretting the loss of classical civilization, Gibbon and Hume asked about the role of religion in the rise and fall of empires. James Frazer included this as part of his tripartite theory of religion and society in ‘The Golden Bough’. His first theory sees it as a staging post in a three-tier process of human society’s evolution from magic through religion to science where from the off we’re all proto-David Humes’ wondering how to justify knowledge from observations. This view is oddly pervasive despite its implausibility. It’s what makes the new atheism of Richard Dawkins and his merry band unpersuasive, as well as earlier theories such as Popper’s. His second theory was the Augustan one about the role of Christianity in bringing down the Roman Empire. His third is, as Gellner puts it, ‘… a kind of C.G. Jung/T.S. Eliot romp amongst the archetypal symbols dredged up from the unconscious of a wide variety of cultures.’ But our interest is in this: Frazier’s theories assume religion as being just a part of society, not identical with it. But for a religion that is a blueprint for society, none of them make sense.

However, on the cusp of the modern age, Weber asks what role religion played in the genesis of industrial and bureaucratic modernity. Weber’s question is pressing. But Muslim societies were not imputed with having any role in bringing about modernity. Unlike Christianity, it is not to blame and might even claim to be a victim of modernity. Unlike Christianity, it hasn’t needed to secularise itself nor, like Confucianism, has it been repudiated by ruling elites. Nor, like Hinduism, is it merely a folk religion despised and/or used by the elite in much the same way as Christianity is in the US. Islam is modernisable.

Islam is fundamentally a dialogue. This dialogue is within itself and is between binaries of ‘knowledge and ignorance, political order and anarchy, civilization and barbarism, town and tribe, Holy Law and mere human custom, a unique deity and usurper middlemen of the sacred.’ So there are two variants of Islam: the folk and the scholarly, and these are its spirits. In the transition to modernity, the folk can be disavowed as culturally backward and in cahoots with colonialist oppressors, scapegoats for everything that went wrong in the past. Nevertheless folk religion was a depository of traditional identities long before the Reformists, no matter what the reformists say. Islam’s scholarly urban version of the religion is presented as pure, literate, egalitarian and potentially able to ‘expand towards embracing the entire community, and thus the ‘protestant’ ideal of equal access for all believers can be implemented.’ This has the advantage over European Protestantism of fusing egalitarian universal literacy with nationalism. European Protestantism merely prepared the ground for nationalism. Unlike attempts to purify and modernize other religions, there are no inegalitarian, hereditary or hierarchical elements in its core to prevent this fusion.

As I claimed at the start, Gellner warns against a basic error of assuming that ideology is the key to understanding this religion, as it is with Christianity. We are better off looking at the institutions that maintain it. Islam has an ideology, of course, but perhaps the difference between it and other religions is better understood in terms of the balance of power which exists in Muslim societies. Gellner, as noted earlier, says that the Islamic ideology is quite as well equipped to have inaugurated modernity as Protestant Christianity: ‘I like to imagine what would have happened had the Arabs won at Poitiers and gone on to conquer and Islamise Europe. No doubt we should all be admiring Ibn Weber’s ‘The Kharejite Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ which would conclusively demonstrate how the modern rational spirit and its expression in business and bureaucratic organization could only have arisen in consequence of the sixteenth century neo-Kharejite Puritanism in northern Europe.’ And he summarises by saying that ‘by various obvious criteria – universalism, scripturalism, spiritual egalitarianism, the extension of full participation in the sacred community not to one, or some, but to all, and the rational systematization of social life – Islam is, of the three great Western monotheisms, the one closest to modernity.’

David Hume developed an oscillation theory of religion in his ‘The Natural History Of Religion.’ Religions oscillate back and forth from polytheism to montheism for non-rational reasons. ‘It is remarkable that the principles of religion have a kind of flux and reflux in the human mind, and that men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatory to theism, and to sink back from theism to idolatory.’ It happens for reasons of a ‘competitive sycophancy’ where ‘… in an idolatorous nation… though men admit the existence of several limited deities, yet may there be some one God, whom, in a particular manner, they make an object of their worship and adoration … his votaries will endeavor, by every art, to insinuate themselves into his favour; and supporting him to be pleased, like themselves, with praise and flattery, there is no exaggeration, which will be spared in their addresses to him. In proportion as men’s fears or distresses become more urgent, they still invent new strains of adulation; and even he who outdoes his predecessor in swelling up the titles of his divinity, is sure to be outdone by his successor in newer and more pompous epithets of praise. This they proceed; til at last they arrive at infinity itself, beyond which there is no farther progress: And it is well, if, on striving to get further, and to represent a magnificent simplicity, they run not into inexplicable mystery…’ The sycophancy removes the deity to a realm too inaccessible and too distant.

The pendulum then swings in the opposite direction. ‘[E]levating the deities to the utmost bounds of perfection, [they] at last beget the attributes of unity and infinity, simplicity and spirituality. Such refined ideas, being somewhat disproportioned to vulgar comprehension, remain not long in their original purity; but require to be supported by the notion of interior mediators or subordinate agents, which interpose between mankind and their supreme deity. These demi-Gods or middle beings, partaking of human nature, and being more familiar to us, become the chief objects of devotion, and gradually recall that idolatry, which had formally been banished by the ardent prayers and panegyrics of timorous and indigent mortals.’

Once we’re in the state of idolatry the competitive sycophancy begins again ‘… as these idolatrous religions fall every day into grosser and more vulgar conceptions, they at last destroy themselves and by the vile representations which they form of their deities, make the tide turn again towards theism. But so great is the propensity, in this alternative revolution of human sentiments, to return back to idolatry, that the utmost precaution is not able to effectually prevent it. And of this, some theists, particularly the Jews and Mohametans, have been sensible, as appears, by their banishing all the arts of statuary and painting, and not allowed the representations, even of human figures, to be taken by marble or colours, lest the common infirmity of mankind should thence produce idolatry.’ Gellner draws out the clear parallels: ‘it is the historical struggle of Jehova against the Baalim of Canaan, of the Reformation against Popery, and of Islam with its own pluralistic tendencies.’ Hume writes: ‘The heroes in paganism correspond exactly to the saints in Popery, and holy dervishes in Mohametism.’

Gellner thinks Hume’s argument is rather too psychologistic and contains a contradiction. Hume admired Classical paganism for its civic and this-worldly values. He disliked Catholicism for promoting selfish individualism and other-worldliness and yet his oscillation theory promotes Catholicism as a thinly disguised version of paganism. Nietzsche was clearer than Hume: ‘… in the Renaissance there was a brilliant-sinister reawakening of the classical ideal, of the noble style of evaluating things; Rome itself stirred like an awakened apparent corpse under the weight of the new, superimposed Judaised Rome, which had the aspect of an ecumenical synagogue and was called ‘church’”. For Hume, pluralists were socially tolerant, monists not. But then, how was he to explain the greater tolerance of Protestant Monist England and Holland over Catholic pluralist Absolutist states like France and Spain?

The contradiction is explained in terms of a distinction between ‘superstition’ on the one hand and ‘enthusiasm’ on the other, found in Hume’s essay ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm.’ Superstition is priest-ridden pluralism. It opposes reason and civil liberty. Enthusiasm is the initial violent zeal of the monotheistic but it eventually dies down and becomes a friend of civil liberty. This allows Hume to deepen the monist/pluralist schema of his ‘Natural History of Religion’. Pluralist priests may be found within a unified, all-encompassing hierarchy opposing liberty, as in Catholicism, or fragmented into many smaller units and rival organizations, as in Muslim organizations. As Gellner explains, ‘ an enthusiastic (monistic, putritan, scripturalistic) bourgeoisie may indeed be an enemy of liberty and a friend of the state, when caught between the state and tribesmen; while it may become a friend of liberty when it is weak enough to abandon hopes of imposing its forcible views on others and yet has nothing other than the state monopoly of religion to fear, when the state has tamed or eliminated both baron and tribesman.’

In ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’ Hume is close to putting forward Weber’s famous Protestant theory of the emergence of modern liberal society. In ‘The Natural History of Religion’ he puts forward his oscillation theory where he explains the dying down of monist Puritan zeal in a weak theory, claiming that all zealous sects burn out into ‘remissness and coolness’. Weber realized that it wasn’t the burning away of a priesthood that caused the zeal to dampen down, but that everyone became a priest and so priestly duties were shifted onto everyone. It was the preservation of priestly zeal in everyone that made the monists end up ‘friends of liberty. It was the effectiveness of the inner light which helped make American democracy possible, as Tocquiville noted’ says Gellner. Hume preferred Monism for its rationality. But people were monists for the wrong reasons (fear and sycophantic attempts to alleviate it) so monism’s intellectual merit was circumvented. They might as well be pluralists : ‘better civil minded-idolaters than craven Unitarians’ is the slogan.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013.