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Gellner’s Islamic Nietzscheans

by Richard Marshall.

A significant tendency of commentators is to assume that it is best to look at Islam through the prism of its ideology. But what if that’s a mistake? What if the peculiar features of Islam make it more enlightening to look at it in terms of the institutions that sustain it. This is why it’s worth going back and rereading Gellner’s old book, because that’s what he suggests. Ernest Gellner’s Muslim Society reminds us that analysis of the religious ideology is not the whole story. But on top of suggesting we examine the religion’s sustaining institutions, he also points out that when we are looking at the Islamic ideology we might find it helpful if we notice that there isn’t one. There are two.

The idiomatic or stylistic contrast between the scholarly, puritanical Islamicists of the cities with their theology of the Book, on the one hand, and the pugnacious, tribal warriors in the mountains and deserts and their religion of the Saints, on the other hand, is stark. It is a contrast between Islamic John Knox’s and Islamic Nietzscheans and one that offers a much wider set of options for Muslims as modernity encroaches than many seem to think. Those who argue that Islam has only a limited repertoire and can’t be compatibile with modernity ignore the millions of Muslims who are already living in modern liberal and pluralistic societies and also this range of options for Muslim society from within Islam itself.

A spectre of one is haunting the other. It is an old spirit, an authentic ghost with claims at least as legitimate as its dominant rival. The spirit shimmers out of memories of the maraboutic hedra, the cult of saints, those local festivals that had once been the predominant form of Islam for a rural, tribal society articulated in terms of clans and segments, and one well placed to mediate between town and countryside. Ecstatic rituals, dances, music, rural festivals, local shrines, the mingling of the profane and sacred gave this religious style a distinctly sexy, earthy, Apollonian feel. It is a spirit that has been hidden for so long that any visibility comes as a bit of a shock, both to insiders and outsiders. It is a spirit that was lost from view because of the peculiar social transformations faced by those places in which it had for so long thrived. Its features were ill-suited to the introduction of modernity and the preservation of self identity in the face of foreign colonial pressures. It is still hidden, but maybe in plain sight. Perhaps its Dionysian, Nietzschean materiality has within it strands that, weirdly, are not obviously incompatible with non-bourgeoise elements of a modern urban modernity, and antinomian types from within the bourgeoise, who may find a dour ascetic puritanicalism (of any stripe – religious or secular) unappealing. And most obviously it is apparent in warrior groups.

Nietzsche famously developed a materialist philosophy that went head to head with the dominant ascetic style of life that in developed modern societies has been regarded as a norm. He linked the ascetic with Monotheism and the deification of Truth ratified by Plato and Socrates, spread as a lifestyle by Christianity and continued in secular guise as a set of norms for cognition, technology and economic life in our predominantly modern urban setting. Nietzsche proposed an alternative style of life, the Dionysian, seeing its roots in Homeric pre-Socratic philosophy and underpinned by advances in scientific materialism that undermined the metaphysical and ontological justifications for religious asceticism.

But his target wasn’t to show that ascetic religion and morality were false. Nietzsche’s philosophy disputed the value we put on truth, so proving religion or asceticism false would hardly be his overall aim, indeed would be self-cancelling. His aim was to inaugurate a different way of living, give life a different vision, a different style, a new meaning. He wrote in ‘The Gay Science‘: ‘ …[T]his will to truth, to “truth at any price,” this youthful madness in the love of truth, have lost their charm for us….Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, or to be present at everything, or to understand and “know” everything…. Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity.’ He held Homeric values in contrast to the ascetic. The old traditional religious spirit of Islam is similarly Nietzschean.

In 1893 Andre Gide went to Algeria on an avowedly Nietzschean pilgrimage. In the oasis town of Biskra he prayed to the unknown Apollo of Biskra: ‘ Take me! Take all of me – I cried. I belong to you. I obey you. I surrender myself. Decree that all in me should be light; yes! Light and lightness. In vain did I struggle against you till this day. But now I recognize you. Thy will be done: I resist no more; I surrender to you. Take me.’ Ernest Gellner thinks he is responding to D’Holbach’s ‘System of Nature’ : ‘ Be happy, seek happiness, without fear. Do not resist my law. Vain are the hopes of religion. Free yourself from the yoke of religion, my proud rival. In my empire there is freedom … Make no mistake; I punish, more surely than the gods, all crimes on the earth. The evildoer may escape the laws of man, but not mine.’ It is an episode that throws light on a contrasting style within the religion of Muslims. The anti-religion of D’Holbach is linked with Nietzsche’s anti-religion and materialist philosophy. And what Gide found in traditional Islam was Nietzschean/Homeric materialism of the sort that D’Holbach’s system promised. It was the religion of the modernist anti-ascetic.

Gide understood what he was doing in Algeria as overcoming his puritanical, ascetic roots, writing, ‘ … my puritan education had formed me thus, gave such importance to certain things, that I could not conceive that certain issues which troubled me, did not bother humanity at large … I was Prometheus, astonished that men could live without the eagle and without being devoured. And yet, without knowing it, I loved that eagle … but began to haggle with him. The problem remained the same… which problem…?
In the name of God, what ideal forbids me to live according to my nature? Till now I had lived according to the morality of Christ, or at least according to a certain Puritanism which had been taught me as the morality of Christ .. I had succeeded only in causing a grave disturbance to my whole being … the demands of my flesh did not know how to dispense with the consent of my spirit… I came to doubt whether God requires such constraint … whether, in this struggle in which I bifurcated myself, I need … put the Other in the wrong…’ Gide understood that he had found the Nietzschean Islamic Apollonian spirit.

D’Holbach’s ‘The System of Nature’ presents a conflict between two forces, the religious on the one hand and the naturalistic (which includes materialism and empiricism) on the other. The religious is anything that supposes that there are spiritual forces of any kind, in any non-material element in humankind, in freewill, in belief in divine creation or interference, and on morals that are anything more than epicurean, utilitarian hedonism. It attacks the anti-rationalism of religion. But its main thrust is against any anti-materialism supposing discontinuities between matter and thought, determinism and freewill. It is an anticipation of Comptean positivism. The first chapter warns against personifying nature. In chapter two he argues that movement and matter are the sufficient facts for creation. He invokes Leibniz and says there is a diversity of substances and endless change. Chapter three expands on this insight. Chapter four discusses psychology and the logic of explanation. ‘It takes a Newton to feel that the fall of bodies is a phenomenon worthy of all attention.’ He wonders whether perceived mystery is pathological or profound, wants to say that its pathological for religious wonder but profound for scientific but the base of this distinction seems ad hoc. In asserting his thoroughgoing materialism he gives examples from physics and politics – ‘a whirlpool of dust and political convulsion.’ Chapter five is about order and how it’s possible without a designer. Gellner writes: ‘ D’Holbach attributes both more and less to nature than the theists do. He gives it power so as to eliminate the extramundane interferences, and denies it constituents that destroy it’s unity and which could appear to be intrusions from some other realm. For him explanations must be both intranatural and materialistic.’

In chapter six he discusses the nature of man. Man falls under the same rules as everything else. Humans have a special way of acting, like everything else. Determinism applies to man as much as to the rest of nature. But there is a hiddeness and complexity to mankind’s actions that is mistaken for illusions of freewill and spirit. Dualism is based on these illusions. Everything changes. Mankind hasn’t always existed and is tied to the conditions producing him. The seventh chapter continues to attack spiritualistic theories. Chapter eight develops a unitary vision of man, arguing that our intellect is based on our faculties of perception like a proto-Jesse Prinz. Feeling is no different from gravity or electricity. It is about material stuff being modified in some way. Everything required to explain mental phenomena is in the brain. The soul is affected by the material and so is material.

Chapter nine discusses diversity as the base of society. Everything, including morality, is caused by physical causes. Gellner notes that ‘ Not even man may himself be seen anthropomorphically. Existentialism later, and Kant at the same time, maintain dualistic, non-naturalist views of men at the price of at least partially opting out of science.’ Morality is based on utility and diversity not convention nor supernatural sources. Habit is often confused with nature but this is a mistake. Education inculcates habits and transmits culture. Politics is vicious when determined by passions, caprice and utilities of the governors rather than nature, experience and general utility. He tries to get a theory of moral critical politics from materialism. ‘A society that does no good has no rights over its citizens,’ summarises Gellner. Absolute government is just brigandage.

Chapter ten says there’s nothing innate in our ideas because we are thoroughly material and so our thoughts are all derived from our sensing. He attacks Descartes and Berkeley. He finds Locke profound. Religion and metaphysics are just sciences of words. The eleventh chapter is about liberty. Partizans of liberty have confused constraint with necessity. Free of constraint, a person may still not be metaphysically free. Freedom from constraint is compatible with determinism. Gellner writes that for D’Holbach ‘Education is necessity displayed to children… is generally so bad because it is based on prejudice. When it is good it is then unfortunately contradicted or destroyed by the evil there is in society.’ He is a fatalist: ‘ The fates lead the willing, and drag the unwilling.’

In chapter twelve he dismisses the idea that fatalism is dangerous because truth can’t harm us, even if it’s disagreeable. Morality is possible in terms of utility even in a deterministic world. We don’t have the freedom to be passive. Chapter thirteen dismisses the immortality of the soul because the soul is identical with the body. We’re like clocks; once broken we’re no longer able to work. He cites Bacon: ‘Men fear death as children fear darkness.’ Such fear aids tyranny. Chapter fourteen argues that education, morals, and laws are enough to restrain men and that when men are bad it’s because government is bad. There is no need for supernatural restraints. The foundations of all morality are natural and materialistic. The fifteenth chapter asserts that utility is the ultimate decider of value. He argues for hedonism. ‘Interest is what each of us deems necessary to his felicity.’ They are natural and only ignorance of the real causes of our desires creates the illusions of religion. The seventeenth chapter says that only true naturalistic ideas can remedy human ills. Moralists have failed in the past because they root their reasons in illusions. ‘Only passions are the real counterweight to the passions.’ Reason is about choosing the best passion for happiness. He quotes Sallust: ‘No one is good for no reason.’ I add: ‘No one is bad for no reason’ too.

In the second volume he writes: ‘ Nature is self-existent: she will always exist; she produces everything; contains within herself the cause of everything; her motion is a necessary consequence of her existence; without motion we could form no conception of nature; under this collective name we designate the assemblage of matter acting by virtue of its peculiar energies.’ He writes that ‘the simplest observation will prove [to man] incontestably that everything is necessary, that all the effects he perceives are material; that they can only originate in causes of the same nature… Thus mind, properly directed, will everywhere show nothing but matter, sometimes acting in a manner which his organs permit him to follow, and others in a mode imperceptible to faculties… will see that all beings follow constant, invariable laws, by which all combinations are united and destroyed… the great whole remaining the same. Thus cured of idle notions with which he was imbued… he will cheerfully consent to be ignorant of whatever his organs do not enable him to compass…’ He ends with a kind of stoicism ‘rather than the progressive, happiness-through-enlightenment-and-secularism outlook that is more generally characteristic’ as Gellner notes. It is an alternative moral outlook; although positive knowledge about nature saves us from illusions of religion and superstition it incorporates a minor key ‘older recipe, salvation by acceptance, the avoidance of false hopes.’

The vision overall militates against dualistic religion. But it has internal difficulties. It fails to examine whether materialism and empiricism are mutually possible, or in Gellner’s terms, whether and how ‘ the paradigm of explanation – in terms of structure of matter – and of information – in terms of sensing’ fit, nor does it explain how in a deterministic world people can free themselves from the tyranny of illusions. It underestimates the roots of conflict and evil that knowledge of our naturalism will remove, has archaic views in it such as an empirical theory of maths and a phylogistic theory of physiognomy, sees too little of the difficulty of how to have both the determinism of nature and normativity, is indecisive about whether it is democratic-liberal or progressive-paternalistic, is unaware of the problem of having empiricism on the one hand and an essentialist determinism on the other, or of the problem of having irreducible diversity of things, on the one hand, and the intelligibility of nature on the other. There is also no awareness of the tension between the relativism of the theory and the absolutist claims being made for it.

But there are two things to note; one is that it doesn’t have the Enlightenment as progression and secularism as its moral (which undermines views of people like John Gray who want us to believe that such a moral is a necessary feature of the Enlightenment), and because of this, it is amenable to a more nuanced attitude to religion than Enlightenment philosophy generally is supposed to have. And here’s where the connection with traditional marabout, saintly Islam comes in. Put another way; D’Holbach’s system couldn’t explain why it wasn’t itself an inside-out religion. Perhaps the reason for this was that it was. Traditional Islam was one version of how the programme might be instantiated, just as Homeric Greece was the example used by Nietzsche.

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