Islam and the Enlightenment

Irfan Ahmad on Islam today

Religion as CritiqueIf Immanuel Kant was the “Papa Enlightenment Subject,” a phrase used by anthropologist William Mazzarella, literary critic Edward Said was arguably a loyal child of that Enlightenment. Credited with coining secular criticism, Said also viewed himself as a secular critic. Notably, the introduction and conclusion to his The World, The Text and the Critic are titled respectively as “Secular Criticism” and “Religious Criticism.”  Lamenting that the contemporary critics had become “cleric,” Said invoked the Enlightenment for critique to “become a truly secular enterprise.” In formulations like Said’s, critique, far removed from religion, resided solely and in a sharply different realm called secular.

Peter Sloterdijk, well-known as a television cohost of Das Philosophische Quartett (Philosophical Quartet) and whose Critique of Cynical Reason was the best-selling German book of philosophy after World War II, disagreed with Said. Unlike Said, he rejected its usefulness, describing critique itself as an “illusion.” Yet, they share at least one thing:  both disregard religion’s intellectual capacity and critical voice. In Sloterdijk’s observation: “Whoever has health insurance, needs God only half as much as before, but whoever has life insurance, does not need him [God] at all.”

The Enlightenment, Christianity, Islam

For long, most scholars and the reading public have viewed the Western Enlightenment as marking a break with religion/Christianity and ushering in the era of critique with reason as its lynchpin. Some caution against using the definite article before Enlightenment suggesting that it was diverse in context as different as British, Dutch, French, German, Scottish and so on. However, this caution has scarcely dislodged the prevalent rendition of the Enlightenment.

In writing Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (University of North Carolina Press) my principal aim is to examine the regnant view of the Enlightenment as a rupture from religion/Christianity and inaugurator of reason. The Enlightenment, I argue, did not oppose Christianity; it instead reinscribed Christianity. For instance, Kant took Protestant Christianity as already rational to criticize other religions. While he did not regard Judaism as “a religion at all”, he viewed Islam as an antithesis of everything supposedly rational.

In the preface to the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason, Kant outlined a challenge to a rebuilding of metaphysics from nomads who “abhor all permanent cultivation of the soil,” because philosophical nomadism did not offer a “permanent residence, Wohnplatz”. In the second edition, he undertook its stabilization by instituting “the proper boundaries.” Nomads in Kant are boundary marker. “The Arab, or Mongol, nurtures contempt for the town-dweller, and deems himself noble in comparison with him, as wandering about in the desert with one’s horses and sheep is more entertainment than work.” Behind Kant’s description of the Arab or Mongol as wandering about without working is his opposing Protestant postulate of hard work, which sets his philosophical land apart from the Arabs. Kant staged this contrast in his  essay “On a Newly Raised Noble Tone of Philosophy” to draw a boundary between rational, hardworking philosophers and irrational, enthusiastic mystagogues. The danger to philosophy is at once a danger to reason and to “Christian Europe,” a term Kant uses in Anthropology. This boundary drawing aimed to protect philosophy from the “danger [Gefahr]” of “enthusiastic visions.” Kant took thinking as the obverse of “enthusiasm” and not to use reason was to open the gate “to all enthusiasm, superstition and even to atheism.” The figure assigned with the twin dangers –zeal/fanaticism/sensuality and nomadism –was Islam and Prophet Muhammad. In “An Essay on the Illness of Head,” Kant described Muhammad as a “zealot”: “Zeal leads the zealot to the external, led Mahomet [sic] onto his princely throne.” In the Critique of Practical Reason, the figure of Muhammad returns as a sign of unreason, nonsense and madness of imagination.

Like Aufklärung in Germany, les Lumières in France was simultaneously Christian and anti-Islam. Consider Voltaire, regarded as an atheist and hostile to Christianity. Commenting on Christianity Unveiled, Voltaire, however, remarked: “This book leads to an atheistic philosophy that I detest.” This is not say he did not criticize Christianity. What goes unrecognized is that in criticizing the Church, clergy, and orthodoxy, Voltaire’s reference point was not only reason but also his notion of the true religion of Jesus. In contrast, in Le Fanatism, ou Mahomet le Prophète, Voltaire described Muhammad as an “imposter.” Indeed, he turned him into an archetype of fanaticism pitted against reason. Accounts of Voltaire mention how his play was banned in France. That the ban was lifted at the behest of Pope Benedict XIV is often sidelined. In fact, the pope consented to Voltaire’s request to dedicate the play to him. Voltaire’s letter to the pope stated that he had written it “in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect [Islam].” Of course, Voltaire also praised Islam for its tolerance of other faiths under the Ottoman and the Mughals. But this aspectual praise was about the historical sociology of Muslims, Islam as a faith and its prophet remained fanatic, absurd, and false.

Not only Voltaire but French philosophes and encyclopedists at large attacked Islam. To Denis Diderot, editor-in-chief of Encyclopédie, Muhammad was “the greatest enemy that human reason has ever known” and the Qur’ān an “absurd, obscure, and dishonest book.” To maintain, as some do, that the French “enlighteners” attacked Islam because the censorship or possible persecution did not allow them to attack Christianity and, therefore, in attacking Islam they actually attacked Christianity is unconvincing, even puerile. Of all religions, why did philosophes choose only Islam? Is the assumption that Islam is not a religion but the religion and critiquing Islam, therefore, equals critiquing religion itself?

Anthropology of Philosophy and Reason

Such questions can properly be addressed neither by philosophy nor by anthropology alone. Welcome to an anthropology of philosophy! Philosophy is not simply an exercise in and of the mind, howsoever gifted, in the same way as anthropology – an inspiring one – is suspicious of brisk empiricism or metro-ride style ethnography, itself mistakenly construed as a bare method. When analyzed as a social-cultural practice from the prism of political anthropology, modern Western thoughts, including the Enlightenment, emerge also as a full-blown project of security.  Michael Dillon is right to observe, in Politics of Security, that Western political thought is impelled by its metaphysical ambition to secure necessary grounds, theoretical as well as instrumental, in order to secure the very security, at once metaphysical and political.

A political anthropology of the Enlightenment enables us to recognize its ethnic identity. In anthropology and related fields, ethnicity is used to study cultural differences and the drawing of boundaries between two or more groups, often in the non-West. There is ample justification to shift the gaze to Europe to investigate the operation of ethnicity in the realm of philosophy. As shown earlier, for the “enlighteners” in Germany as well as in France, Islam was an important (not the only) “other” against which they crafted their ideas about reason, hooked synonymously with Western Christianity that is Europe.

Best suited to identify and criticize such ethnic mechanisms of the Enlightenment, anthropologists, however, reproduced them. In titling their book Debating Muslims, Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi assume that Muslims debate but do not critique because their reference of debate remains revelation. As their book discusses the Qur’ān, ḥadīṡ, the ritual of Hajj, and so on, their assumption is that it does open the space for critique, but not the critique qua critique. That is, Muslims in their book participate in critical hermeneutics, not in epistemological critique the reference point of which, so goes the premise, is solely secular reason a la the Enlightenment. This is more evident in Anthropology as Cultural Critique Fischer authored with George Marcus. Works by Dale Eickelman (Knowledge and Power in Morocco), John Bowen (Muslims through Discourse) and Magnus Marsden (Living Islam) in location as different as Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan tread, albeit not identically, the same analytical path.

Critique Past the Religious-Secular Divide

Such is the context – theoretical, methodological, disciplinary, philosophical – in which Religion as Critique intervenes to write about Islam as critique. This essay’s title, akin to Nietzsche’s notion of philosophizing with a hammer, contests the self-congratulatory story of the Enlightenment and its prejudice vis-à-vis Islam to instead demonstrate how critique works in Islamic traditions. To this end and drawing on the inspiring works of Talal Asad, it undoes the polarity between religious and secular. Edward Said’s thought was emblematic of this polarity, which anthropological works inattentive to Asad uncritically upheld by circulating the dictum of the Enlightenment as critique. It is important to stress that in notable accounts by Charles Larmore and Peter Berger secularism is characteristically Christian because it is unique to the inner tenets of Judeo-Christian monotheism and hence foreign to other faiths.

If viewed from the longue durée frame, the folly of critique and reflexivity as the sole property of the Enlightenment and modernity becomes stark. Critique precedes the Enlightenment and is traceable to the Axial Age (800 to 200 BC.), which Arnaldo Momigliano termed as an age of criticism. The Buddha was a critic; he contested the foundation of the hierarchical order sanctioned by the religious logic of jati (caste division). So were the prophets Mūsā (Moses) and ʿIsā (Jesus), in whose tradition Prophet Muhammad stands. In Qurʾānic terms, the mission of all prophets Allah sent was to do reform (iṣlāḥ). And to reform was to critique. In Islamic tradition, this mission of reform resonated well with what the Talmud and the Bible say. The prophets of Bani Israel (children of Israel) strove to reform societies by critiquing (noun: tanqīd/naqd) the power of their time. Prophet Muhammad was a prominent critic of the Meccan social order in that he devoted himself to reforming the society whose power elites disliked him to the point of planning to physically annihilate him. Yet, he did not disown Meccans. Forced to leave Mecca, on his return he forgave even those who sought to kill him. Such was Muhammad’s love to the people of Mecca he aimed to reform and critique. Since Muslims believe that Muhammad was the final prophet, the mission of reform and the renewal (tajdīd) of God’s message, after Muhammad’s death, lay with ʿulema, regarded as heirs to the prophets. Widely but wrongly translated as clerics or theologians, the correct translation is scholars beyond the secular-religious dualism.

Before I summarize key theses of the book, a note about its subject and methodology is in order. The subject of critique it tracks is the exposition on Islam by Abul Ala Maududi (1903 –79), the founder of Iamaat-e-Islami (hereafter Jamaat) in colonial India in 1941. At length it discusses the multifaceted critiques of his exposition by former members and sympathizers of Jamaat and its student wing, the Student Islamic Organization. That is, the prime focus is on immanent critique, by those who were or are associated with Jamaat. In greater depth, it describes forms, modalities and mechanisms of critique exemplified by believing Muslims in their engagements with “the woman question” and the issue of the Islamic state as being integral, incidental or dispensable to Islam as a faith. Along the way, it discusses such subjects as democracy, justice, language, identity and more. Given the ethnographic context of India, it also dwells on what life means for Muslims living as a minoritzed figures. The India Religion as Critique brings to readers’ attention is radically different from the India discussed by scholars like Amartya Sen form whom Muslims are verily statistical entities rather than thinking subjects with their own traditions of reasoning and argumentation.

The final chapter dwells on critique as an everyday social-cultural practice. It discusses the Ḳhudāī Ḳhidmatgār (God’s Servant), one of the most spectacular peace movements initiated by Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890–1988), as a movement of critique. It concludes with everyday critique outside social movements and analyses proverbs as its expressions. These descriptions show how diverse modes of critique pertain to power and powerlessness and relate as much to the real world as to a possible world. Markedly historical-ethnographic, the book draws on insights from disciplines and fields as diverse as Islamic studies, literary studies, studies of religion, Urdu literature, anthropology of philosophy, Western thoughts and south Asian studies.

Four Theses

Religion as Critique consciously makes a set of four interconnected arguments. Since any argument presupposes as well as unleashes sub-arguments, each of its thesis obviously contains sub theses, themselves building on others.

First, against the almost consensual views that Islam lacks reason and it is not modern yet, it argues that in different forms and varying degrees critique has been integral to Islam. The Enlightenment idea of critique is tied to and is an upshot of a distinct, highly local, political-anthropological formation, the generalization of which has limited analytical use in other contexts. A key contention is that the Enlightenment — considered the reference point for critique and use of reason — was an ethnic project because Europe constituted its identity in the name of reason against a series of others, including Islam.  Contra the prevalent notion according to which Islam and critique are two exclusive domains —Islam and critique— it proposes to think afresh of Islam as critique.

Second, in and of itself reason is neither sufficient nor absolutely autonomous in arriving at judgements. Reason —delinked, unhooked, isolated, detached, autonomous — largely does not exist. Left to itself, in many ways, it is helpless to explain the first principles any tradition or worldview, including the secular one, presupposes. In other words, reason is enmeshed in culture and tradition. It is also anchored in politics, broadly construed beyond the logic and axioms of party politics or electoral arithmetic.

Third, in Islam, reason (aql) is valued; however, rather than being antithetical to emotion and affect, it dwells with the cognate Islamic notion of qalb or dil (heart). The simultaneity of heart, reason, and mind are evident in the prefaces of books that Urdu authors write. As Abul Kalam Azad argued, the Qurʾān at once addresses the heart (dil) and mind (dimāg̣h) of its reader. In both Arabic and Urdu tradition, the locus of intellect or reason is qalb. Even for Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the greatest champion of reason in nineteenth-century British India, the heart was the locus of doubt as well as satisfaction about philosophical arguments.

Finally, the book makes a strong case for extending the practice of critique from the domain of the elite to ordinary, uneducated subjects. It contends that non-intellectuals like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and tens of thousands of ordinary followers of his anti-colonial Ḳhudāī Ḳhidmatgār movement too enacted critique. It also focuses on South Asian proverbs as arenas of critique in everyday life intertwined with death. To write about critique as an everyday practice is to depart from a long established Western tradition (in place, as Raymond Williams noted, since the seventeenth century), which limited it to literary texts and figures. It was only in 2009 that to the meaning of literary criticism as judgement the Oxford English Dictionary included a “non-textual subject.”

In arguing for tracking critique in everyday life well beyond the world of the salaried intellectuals, the suggestion clearly is not that ordinary individuals like hawkers or prostitutes and specialists —for instance, those with doctorates — are critics of the same kind. When Antonio Gramsci observed that everyone was an intellectual, he also remarked that all of us could and often made omelets, but all of us were not necessarily master chefs. The point to note is that critique ought to be understood in a way we are not yet accustomed to. As an activity, practice and idea, the common minimum notion of critique (tanqīd/naqd) in south Asian Urdu/Islamic tradition—to assess (jāñchnā/parakẖnā), or, to distinguish between original and fake coins, good and bad or not so good.  Critique, then, it is not confined to the academia, or the intellectuals outside colleges and universities, nor to written texts. Put differently, the book restores critique where it rightfully belongs – life intertwined with death.

Returning to and contra Sloterdijk, despite the existence of Life Insurance Corporation, an Indian state-owned and the largest insurance company (its history goes back to the early nineteenth century), religion continues to be salient in India as well as what he calls “among us [West].” And contra both Sloterdijk and Said, religion possesses unnoticed potential, resources, and creativity to serve as a vital medium of and for critique, which the Enlightenment unreasonably stigmatized. Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace foregrounds and evidentially demonstrates this thesis. To this end, it identifies the limits as well as vitality of anthropology toward undertaking an enterprise that it is.

 Irfan Ahmad is senior research fellow at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious & Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen. Co-editor, most recently of The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election (Oxford University Press), he taught at Dutch and Australian universities. A political anthropologist, ideas and religion, especially Islam, interest him. His first monograph, Islamism and Democracy in India (Princeton University Press) was shortlisted for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the Best Study in the Social Sciences.