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Nietzsche and Islam
By Roy Jackson , Routledge

Reviewed by: S. Parvez Manzoor

Unfortunately, the title of this provocative study gives little indication of its scope and tenor. Though Nietzsche, commonly associated with nihilism, will-to-power and plain atheism, is pivotal to Jackson’s timely reflection, his is not a specialist’s monograph focused on the subtleties of the German philosopher’s hitherto little-known flirtation with yet another faith espousing listless morality and will-to-truth. Rather, Jackson presents an extended argument against all reductionist assaults on Islam, whether enshrined in the triumphalist rhetoric of Empire or in the hallowed fantasies of reactionary fundamentalism, which would reduce it to a mere body-politics.

For, to construe Islam as a simple political project for here-and-now, as a crass ideology of world-domination, is to deprive the faith of its spiritual quotient and dispossess it of its transcendent moorings. Much of the post 9/11 debate, informed by Manichean consciousness and sustained by apocalyptic, ‘clash of civilisation’ visions, presents a travesty of the Muslim’s faith. Given this secularizing of faith, this disfigurement of Islam’s visage as it were, Muslims are obliged to re-affirm the sovereignty of the transcendent over the temporal, the eternal over the transient, and the universal over the parochial.

Here is my attempt to express the centrality of faith: The ultimate vision of Islam is transcendent: it is a moral doctrine, not a secular ideology. Islam takes the measure of the human condition from the perspective of the eternal and fosters a faith whose truth stretches beyond the realm of existence and time. Only through a commitment to the ultimate transcendence does the human world, the world of history and politics, acquire whatever meaning that it seeks. For the human world can have no claim to being sui generic, whether existentially or morally. Man’s existence is a gift, and his/her morality a commitment. Morality is an obligation, a contractual agreement that has been freely negotiated by Man himself and not a burden arbitrarily imposed upon him. Existence and morality are therefore indissoluble in the Islamic perspective. Just as we cannot will ourselves into existence, we cannot annul the moral contract either. We may, of course, if we are foolish or haughty, disregard the stipulations of our agreement, but dissolve it, we cannot. The is of the human condition, accordingly in the Islamic scheme of things, is never bereft of the ought of the transcendence. The world of politics and history, whatever its legitimacy and import, can therefore never be the be-all and end-all of the Islamic commitment.

Jackson’s book reverberates with the same sentiment and reiterates the same truth, albeit in a chaste and prosaic language. It presents itself as a philosophical refutation of all purely this-worldly conceptions of Islam even when they are promoted as trans-historical norms. The book, for him, has two interconnected aims: to demonstrate the Friedrich Nietzsche ‘is not the standard-bearer for atheism’; and that ‘his philosophy has particular relevance for how Islamic identity is perceived in the modern world.’ His counter-argument, against the Orientalist’s essentialism or the fundamentalist’s retrograde legalism, is fully alert to the polemical, nay slanderous and de-humanizing, terms of the contemporary debate. Further, he earnestly approaches Islam through the key paradigms of ‘the Qur’an, the Prophet, Medina, and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs’ before highlighting their radical re-appropriation ‘in the philosophy of Maulana Mawdudi’, ‘archetypically transhistorical’ in his view. In the following chapter, Jackson expounds his judgment on Nietzsche as a ‘religious atheist’ and maintains that ‘Nietzsche’s ‘religiosity’ rests in his lack of ‘faith’ in the secular order to provide humanity with any meaningful existence’. Indeed, he extends this argument by insisting that Islam today appears to be faced with a crisis not dissimilar the one elicited Nietzsche’s radical response. Islam, Jackson opines, ‘is faced with a number of options, the two most fundamental being either to follow the same trajectory of Christianity in Europe and turning its God into the ‘dead God’ that Nietzsche is so critical of, or to learn from Nietzsche’s religiosity and embrace a ‘living God’ that does not perceive secularization as an enemy.’

The following chapters dealing with the Qur’anic paradigm’ (‘The Soul as Text’) and its historical context (‘The soul as deriving from Jahiliyya’, and ‘The soul as deriving from the time of the Prophet and Rashidun’) are exegetical. Here the author expounds an essentially normative view of Islam, anchoring his discussion in the original sources, supplemented by the insights of contemporary thinkers. Jackson handles all this with sensitivity and analytical acumen, but also with a fare measure of candidness. His criticism of Mawdudi’s concept of the Islamic state, for instance, cannot be faulted for committing the venial sins of reticence and circumlocution: ‘The Transhistorical claim that the conventions of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs provide a source for an Islamic state do not add up to scrutiny’; or ‘There is little evidence to suggest that Islam prescribes an Islamic state’. That many Muslims thinkers are also in agreement with this judgment must not make us insensitive the fact that the state today is viewed exclusively through the prism of secular ideology; indeed it is rooted in a belief in the ultimate scheme of things that is immanentist through and through. We for our part must emphasize that even if Islamic commitment cannot be exhausted by any politics of the sacred law, it can do without it either.

The pivotal issue in any discussion on the Islamic state in my mind is the interface of history and norm. To accept that the Muslim attempt to read the formative history of Islam as norm also yields a theory of the theocratic state, that to be a Muslim is always to remain a legal subject, however is not to present a blue-print for ‘fundamentalist’ politics. For both Law and State in the Islamic scheme of things always retain their transcendent referents. Only when the polity incarnates a will-to-power that is sovereign over the faith’s will-to-truth (pace Nietzsche) does it transform itself into an instrument of tyranny and injustice. Hence, Law does not supplant Faith but consolidates it. That there exists, within any transcendence-affirming worldview, an ineluctable tension between faith and law remains incontrovertible. However, Islamic tradition, which is also acutely cognizant of this and expresses it as the paradox of fatwa and taqwa, does not regard them as antinomies. The problem of secularity, in contradistinction to secularism, must also be seen in this light.

For, secularism, like any darling child, has many names. In contemporary literature it is presented, either humbly, as a rejection of ecclesiastical authority, a model for pluralism, a theory of society, a doctrine of governance; or augustly, as a philosophy of history, a creed of atheism, an epistemology of humanism; or even more grandiosely, as a metaphysics of immanentism that corresponds to the ultimate scheme of things. Within the academic discourse, it is also customary to accord it an almost Socratic definition and distinguish its various manifestations as a process of history (secularization), a state of mind and culture (secularity) and a theory of truth (secularism). Needless to say, not everyone championing its cause ascribes to all these claims, nor is every expression of the secularist, this-worldly, conscience and piety antithetical or inimical to Islam. As long as the state does not proclaim its (moral) sovereignty, as long as it does not stipulate rejection of transcendence as a criterion of citizenship, Muslim conscience has no problem adjusting to secular politics in a spirit of accommodation and pragmatism.

Jackson’s book is suggestive, scholarly and eminently readable. It makes a significant contribution to the current ideological debate and deserves a careful analysis by the Muslim reader.


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