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Gellner’s Islamic Nietzscheans

This segmentary style of politics engendered a particular religious style. Without political centralization, the threat of violence is present at every level rather than just centrally. Yet the system doesn’t collapse into anarchy. The religion prevents this. In the tribal areas the pervasive religious institution is the saint, (the dervish or marabout).The saint is the possessor of routinised charisma inherited in terms of descent from the Prophet. Saints supervise political progress, sanction and supervise legal collective oaths, mark spatial markers for frontiers, provide temporal markers and supply the means for the Islamic identity of tribesmen. Illiterate, they are the opposite of scholarly Islam. They ensure that the faith is mediated by special and distinct (usually pacifist) holy men, non-puritanical and scholarly, incarnated in a person and with an ethics of loyalty not rule observance. This religious style is hierarchical, discontinuous from tribal custom agreed by equal elders which is consensual. The authority of the Saint is absolute.

Urban Islam requires a different religious style. The ruler appoints literate judges. Learned piety mirrors the dignity of commerce. It is dignified in a scripturalist, Unitarian Puritanical sort of way. Theology is scarcely distinguishable from the law. Separation of powers rests on the fact that there is no legislature. The law is given. The judiciary can be independent from the executive: the laws are God’s not the ruler’s. The literate class are therefore powerful even though not able to resist the ruler. Judges can’t make laws but consensual interpretation can extend it. Social norms and ideals are available to anyone who can read. ‘The Norm is extra-ethnic and extra-social, and not too easily susceptible to political manipulation.’

Shi’itsm is nuanced: they claim expertise in the founder-martyr’s biography. That the founder fell foul to a Muslim ruler ‘makes it even easier for the religious leaders to de-legitimise political authority and mobilize opposition, in a way that must be the envy of more self-consciously revolutionary ideologies.’ The Martyrdom was fiercely avenged and its symbolism can destabilize Muslim rulers. Pahlevis was overthrown without being militarily defeated and with still military and financial power intact. The Shah of Iran was thrown out by being seen as Yazid, murderer of Hussein. (Ironically, if Iran had been subject to British colonialism it would have probably not led to the revolutionary religious eruption: The Shah managed to be more Westernised than colonialists using indigenous leaders would have been).

Iran has both administrative and populist mystical ulama – religious scholars – serving the religion and the state on the one hand and the religious needs of the people on the other. The battle between Shi’ite’s with PhDs on the one hand and populist mullahs on the other is part of the inheritance of the Iranian revolution according to Gellner. Modern conditions helped urban bazari make revolution without rural help but there is evidence that they get displaced by tribesmen once the state is established, as in the Mahdia in Sudan. This nuance contrasts with the Sunni version where the opposition is between scholar and Sufis. In the Shi’ite version the division is within the scholar class itself.

Success as a revolutionary requires truth and tribal cohesion. This is rare and difficult to achieve. Friedrich Engels writes: ‘Muslim risings, notably in Africa, make a remarkable contrast [with Christendom]. Islam suits Orientals , especially the Arabs, that is to say, on the one hand townsmen practicing commerce and industry, on the other hand, nomadic Bedouin. But there is in this the seed of a periodic collision. Townsmen, growing opulent and ostentatious, become lax in the observations of the ‘Law.’ The Bedouin, poor and hence austere in their manners, contemplate the wealth and enjoyment with envy and lust. They unite under the direction of a prophet, a Mahdi, to punish the faithless, to reestablish the ceremonial law and true faith, and by way of recompense to appropriate the treasure of the faithless. A hundred years later, naturally, they find themselves at exactly the same point as their predecessors; a new purification is required; a new Mahdi emerges; the game re-starts. So it has come to pass since the wars of conquest of the Almoravides and the African Almohades in Spain till the latest Mahdi in Khartoum… It was the same, or very nearly, during the convulsions in Persia and other Muslim lands. These movements are born of economic causes even if they have a religious camouflage. But, even when they succeed, they leave the economic conditions intact. Thus nothing has changed, and the collision becomes periodic. By contrast, for a popular rising in the Christian West the religious camouflage is only the banner and mask for an attack on the crumbling social order: in the end, that order is overturned; a new one emerges; there is progress, the world moves on.’ This was written in 1894/5. He had read Ibn Khaldoun. Marx marked Ibn Khaldoun in the index of his reading of Kovalevsky.

He was wrong on some things. Muslim burghers were not ostentatious. Nor was the state engendered by class conflict. Young Marx couldn’t grasp the idea that the stability of the social structure wasn’t a colonialist projection. But Engels shared the same vision. The ‘traditional Muslim state is simultaneously and without contradiction both a Robber state, run for the benefit of a dominant group, and a moralistic state , bound to promote good and proscribe evil. It is carried by and identified with the dominant group, yet it also has an inbuilt vocation towards the implementation of a sharply identified divine order on earth’ writes Gellner. Modern industrial states are too complex for dominant groups not to have to be devious in claiming its resources. But socialism has some of the moralism of the moralistic tradition. ‘Islamic Marxism is only superficially paradoxical’ says Gellner.

The city burghers are sober and ratified by scholarly religion. The city poor require an externalized, ritualized, and personal religion. So the faith of scholars sets the tone of religion in the city but there are also the small groups and their more mystic religion. They are not always in opposition. But they are often in a latent opposition to each other where the scholars see the mystic religion in terms of superstition, cults, tribal and customary law, and all of it eroding the primacy of Islamic Law and the Book.

Urban pure scripturalism is caught between the threat of lax pre-literate tribesmen on the one hand and, with the advent of industrial modernism, modern townsfolk literate to the point of skepticism. Tribal religion is not about class or status but time-scale and political occasion. Small scale saints can mark time and space, in festivals of seasons and boundary marking. When something momentous is needed to unite the tribes – perhaps in a time of invasion – then rather than these small scale religious specialists an impressive scholarly Unitarian preacher is required.

Here the oscillation found in Hume attaches to the sociology of Ibn Khaldoun. Sufism – personalized, organized, hierarchical, ecstatic, unpuritanical, unscriptural religion- is required to hold together the tribes and the urban poor. ‘Sufism is then the opiate of the people.’ But the urban towns and city require scholarly, sober Unitarian piety to dominate its economics and civilization, but not its politics. Mongomery Watt calls it a nomocracy not a theocracy.

This picture of classical Muslim society combines Ibn Khaldoun’s tribal version of the circulation of elites with David Hume’s theory of flux and reflux in religion as two sides of the same coin. A weak state and a strong culture is the formula. It reverses the European, Western assumption of a strong state and a weak culture. Modernity brings with it the modern state which must monopolise violence. This stabilizes the pendulum, centralizes everything and so threatens to end tribalism. It therefore undermines the tribal style of religion, the Sufi, who become denounced as frauds degrading the true Muslim faith of the scripturalist, scholastic and sober urbanite. Everything is tilted towards the urban style.

Colonialisation led to the taming of the tribes. The urban poor were a problem. As urbanism has grown the tribal style of religion loses its prestige. As Gellner keeps insisting, the scholarly, scripturalist style is inherently modernisable. ‘The scripturalist version can be presented as a national ideology, defining all Moslems in a given territory as one nation (even if that, as in Pakistan, leads to a dilemma as to whether faith or nation is the basis of the state.)’ It is dignified and has a style that easily fits with industrial modernity’s bureaucratic, bourgoise style.

Two versions of Muslim responses to the impact of modernity are on offer: one against religion and one for it. Turkey and Tunisia opted for secular nationalism. Kemalist style nationalism can drive the opposing styles of religion together in an alliance against secularisation and so create a permanent religious problem. Post war Turkey hinges on this secularist dilemma: either have free elections and hand over to the religiosity of countryside and small town, or uphold Kemalism at the cost of overruling the vote. The millet system of the old Ottoman State developed autonomous quasi-national communities. Modern states can’t function with cohabiting specialized communities and so via the ethnic cleansing that largely defined the twentieth century they became nations. Lebanon didn’t and remains a precarious explosive balance of communities without a state.

Where struggle with a dominant foreign power is prevalent religion is radicalized, entwined with nationalism. Muslim states modernizing in the name of reformed Islam avoid the Kemalist issue but face pressures from their own extremists as well as literate urban secularists. Fundamentalism against modernism has still no clear outcome. As an emerging modern state discipline and self-sacrifice, orderliness and literacy, obedience to abstract rules imposed by a disembodied central authority is compatible with the style or spirit of the urban religion, unlike that of the tribes. ‘Whether that spirit can also remain compatible with an economically developed society, as opposed to a developing one, remains to be seen’ writes Gellner.

Tribalism can still be significant. In Somalia it was illegal to refer to your tribe and now social organisation is tribal in many areas. But the enormous wealth created by oil has allowed scripturalist Islam to be applied more rigorously than with normal economic constraints. As we noted, Gaddafy pushed an extreme scripturalism that released him from normal legal-theological constraints. He suspended the Sunna (the codified traditions, as opposed to the Koran) and reformed the Muslim calendar, based on the prophet’s death rather than the Hijra. The idea of just depending on the Koran was proclaimed in 1909 in Egypt but had never before actually been put into practice. It was a move that undermined the ulama class; ‘neither mufti nor marabout nor shaikhs’ appeared in a Libyan daily announcing this. The ulama offered orderliness and sobriety and were like a judicial committee protecting the burghers. Gaddafy left this class defenceless. A theologian commission in Saudi Arabia under the Qadi of Medina found him guilty of apostasy. What is noteworthy is that when a Muslim society affirms its roots against outsiders it doesn’t resort to ruralism as in Germany, the USA, Russia or England, but goes for an urban Puritanism. It also seems like a socialist, mystical radicalism of unspecified aims. An alternative option, at the other end of the spectrum, is the example of the Aga Khan who used the Ismaili cult of personality to free himself from scripture and community.

Modern Muslim countries are like European states facing twentieth century issues superimposed on those of the sixteenth. They face choices: do they become socialist or liberal states? Traditionalist ruling elites based on kin-based recruitment policies face anti-tribal modernists. Religious rigorists face the lax. The egalitarian scripturalist religion is useful and well suited to a technical and mobile society. Insulated and protected, it can help inaugurate modernity by keeping the other style at bay whilst at the same time maintaining continuity with its ancient identity and simultaneously justifying a great leap forward. Old style puritans as in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria feel different from new style individualistic puritans who emerged after fierce colonialism as in Algeria and Libya. It’s a rich tapestry.

When we look at emerging patterns of Muslim states it is interesting to see how they appeared in 1981 when Gellner’s book came out. Algeria and Libya were examples of religiously fundamentalist but socially radical states. Turkey was religiously moderate and socially radical. Saudi Arabia and Nigeria were fundamentalist and politically conservative/traditionalist. Morocco was religiously moderate and politically conservative/traditionalist. Iran had moved into the fundamentalist camp when Khomeiny took over, and the question was whether it would end up politically radical or conservative/traditional. The recent election there has opened up interesting possibilities. Turkey seems currently in a flux between fundamentalism vs secularism/moderates and social radicalism vs political conservatives/traditionalists. Pakistan is religiously fundamentalist and politically conservative/traditionalist. It’s inability to decide whether nationalism or Islam is to be its unifying ideology hinders its arrival into full modernity.

Turkey didn’t oscillate. Turks developed their own political theory in the fifteenth century in the ‘Cycle of Territory’ theory. It was, as noted earlier, the massive exception to Ibn Khaldoun’s theory. But Gellner argues that, ‘inside every Mamluk state, there appear to be many Ibn Khaldounian social formations hidden away and signaling wildly to be let out – and many frequently succeeding, whether by a political upheaval or a probing anthropologist.’ Gellner also claims that ‘… it explains how their distinctive fusion produced its stabilities and tensions, and continues to influence the various paths along which it is finally entering the modern world.’

The Arab Spring, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Egypt again – there’s a need to understand what is happening in all these hot spots. With Gellner’s thirty year old critique I’m out of date and prediction is always difficult without hindsight! However his message that we focus less on Islamic religious content and more on the various institutional structures sustaining it seems increasingly pertinent.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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