Saturday, May 12, 2007

The 'extinct' Arabs?


I'm only asking what this means.

Our latter-day Spengler -- who calls himself "Spengler" but should not be conflated with last century's Spengler -- has recently written a column, "Are the Arabs already extinct? " (Asia Times Online, May 8, 2007), on the Syrian Arab poet "Adonis" (the pen-name for Ali Ahmad Said, and thus not to be confused with the mythical Adonis), who had himself earlier stated of Arabs (cf. MEMRI, March 11, 2006):
[W]e Arabs are in a phase of extinction...
I, along with Spengler, ask what Adonis means by this. In his own words, Adonis explains:
We have become extinct. We have the quantity. We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world.
Why have the Arabs, supposedly, lost this creative capacity? Adonis suggests:
I believe it has to do with the concept of "oneness", which is reflected -- in practical or political terms -- in the concept of the hero, the savior, or the leader. This concept offers an inner sense of security to people who are afraid of freedom. Some human beings are afraid of freedom.
I don't know the Arabic word that Adonis used for "oneness" in this context, but this English term "oneness" sounds suspiciously like the the translation often employed for "Tawhid," the Islamic concept of the "oneness" of Allah. So, was Adonis provocatively using this theological concept and implicitly criticizing it? That would appear to be the case, for he adds that it gives rise to a slave mentality:
Just as Allah solves all our problems, the dictator will solve all our problems.
How did Allah's "oneness" result in this? To clarify this, Spengler cites other words from Adonis, an essay, "Poetry and Apoetical Culture," from his book The Pages of Day and Night:
When this divine Revelation came to take the place of poetic inspiration, it claimed to be the sole source of knowledge, and banished poetry and poets from their kingdom. Poetry was no longer the word of truth, as the pre-Islamic poets had claimed it was. Nevertheless ... Islam did not suppress poetry as a form and mode of expression. Rather, it nullified poetry's role and cognitive mission, endowing it with a new function: to celebrate and preach the truth introduced by the Koranic Revelation. Islam thus deprived poetry of its earliest characteristics -- intuition and the power of revelation and made it into a media tool . . . . Poetry in Arab society has languished and withered precisely insofar as it has placed itself at the service of religiosity, proselytism and political and ideological commitments. (101-102)
Spengler observes that in saying this, namely, that Islam forces everything human into the divine mold of "oneness" because the Qur'anic revelation is "the sole source of knowledge" (emphasis mine), "Adonis makes the remarkable claim that the nature of Koranic revelation destroys the possibility of poetry, and with it the possibility of life." Spengler then quotes further from Adonis to back up this observation:
The political-religious institution exercised its power as a faithful guardian of the Koranic Revelation. It possessed the absolute certitude that the Revelation spoke and wrote Man and the universe clearly, definitively and without error or imperfection. This certitude, in turn, demanded that the Muslim individual be formed around a faith in an absolute text, one which allowed no interrogation that might give rise on any doubt whatsoever. Under such conditions, alienation is inevitable; the skeptical individual no longer has the right to be a member of the society.

Because Islam -- the last message sent by God to mankind -- has placed the final seal on the Divine Word, successive words are incapable of bringing humankind anything new. A new message would imply that the Islamic message did not say everything, that it is imperfect. Therefore the human word must, on an emotional level, continually eulogize and celebrate that message; on an intellectual level, a fortiori it can only serve as an explication. (102-103)
There is no room, it seems, for anything else in Islam.

Spengler's post on Adonis, incidentally, became a hot issue for Robert Spencer, who has written a number of books critical of Islam and who hosts the site Jihad Watch to keep an eye on Islamic radicalism, because Spengler happened to call Spencer's approach "sophomoric" for its manner of stringing together quotes from the Qur'an, and he insisted that Islam has to be understood from within. Spengler's critique is not entirely fair to Spencer, but I don't want to get sucked into that debate. I mention this merely because Spengler paid Spencer the courtesy of responding in a comment to Spencer's irate post, and in that comment made some further, interesting observations:
I do not mean to say that one has to be a Muslim in order to understand Islam. Kierkegaard is one of the most perceptive writers on Jewish faith (if we believe Heschel and Wyschogrod), while Rosenzweig is one of the best theologians of Christianity. What I mean, and have said in print on numerous occasions, is that the existential theology of Kierkegaard, Barth, Rosenzweig and -- yes -- Ratzinger provides keys to understanding what Islam actually is, and how Muslims actually think. My objection to Mr. Spencer is precisely what he concedes: that is a long time since he read Kierkegaard. Actually, I would recommend beginning with Rosenzweig and working backwards. This is a very simple point: to approach a religious conflict without the tools of theology is like going to a gunfight without a gun. Otherwise, criticism of Islam is likely to be arbitrary, superficial and impoverished.

The trouble is that apart from Pope Benedict, who threw a few pebbles into the minefield and then backed off, Western theologians have not had the temerity to pursue the direction of theological analysis that Rosenzweig set forth. The heavy divisions of the West have sat in reserve, leaving lightly-armed skirmishers like Mr. Spencer to throw themselves into the breach with inadequate intellectual armament. I elaborated this point here.
I'll have to take a futher look at Spengler and what he writes about his own approach to understanding Islam (as well as look into his reading list), but he raises an important issue. The Islamist use of the Qur'an must follow in some manner from the existential conditions of life under Islam, which in turn is connected to Islamic theology. If one is intending to provide a critique of Islamism (or of Islam itself), then one needs a sophisticated understanding of Islam's intellectual foundations as these are rooted in Muslims' existential needs.

I realize that this sounds vague, but it deserves following up.

Labels: ,


At 10:15 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

How would you explain different sects?

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good question. Perhaps Adonis could tell us, for he comes from the Alawite sect of Islam, which is barely even Muslim and which might account for his different vision.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:32 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Isn't this a re-statement of a traditional literary debate, especially by Shakespeare and Milton, of course? Democracy v Absolute Monarchy. The word of the people v the Word of God sanctifying dictatorship (Richard II and Charles I and II etc). It is quite a bold assertion by Adonis that poetical inspiration is antithetical to Godly inspiration. In his argument he refers to the death of Egyptian civilisation and divine house rulers as a case in point. I am not sure that is true. The great flowering of culture under Akhenaton was heretical and anti-establishment: it introduced self and portraiture into art; it defied estabished religion and placed the expressive powers of the individual centre stage. That follows Adonis's thesis, as I initially understand it. BUT, and it is a sizeable but...Akhenaton introduced a restrictive dictatorship and monotheism, the conditions of Islam. To me, it does not seem to follow that dictatorship necessarily inhibits artistic growth because it creates only a lack of freedom. This is an important debate. Sadly, poets don't always make the best analysts and are often too carried away by their own sweeping statements; their own dictatorial beliefs. A fascinating insight and post.

At 7:35 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

Hathor's point is a good one: there is such a variety of positions under the term "Islam". I don't think Rumi and Sufi Islam fits Adonis's viewpoint.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics. Adonis might be right about this particular phase of Islamic civilization. There really does seem to be something wrong, and I have difficulty believing that the problem stems mostly from Western colonialism ... or whatever.

But even a hidebound religion can inspire impressive poetry.

Obviously, there's more to be said about this, but I'd have to know more.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taking up the question posed by Hathor ("how would you explain different sects?") and the point made that Adonis is nominally Alawi and hence "barely even Muslim": Being nominally Alevi (another barely Muslim Shia sect), I can offer the following:

This sectarian "split" about the successorship of Mohammed, the row about 'Ali, the self-sacrifice/killing of Hussein is simply a metaphor, and not historical at all. There is no hard evidence any of these people ever existed, or that any of these events ever took place. All we have is the narrative from the Sunna, authored 200+ years later.

What I, along with most educated Alevi and other Shia deviants think (and have historically always thought), and what the upper echelon of Muslim theologians of all flavours are at least dimly aware of, is that these 'people' are echoes that represent different strands of thought in an anicent theological dispute - The very same dispute you are familiar with: The question of Jesus' nature.

Early 'Sunnis' represented the ones who thought of Jesus as the final prophet, a blessed voice and servant of God (this is actually what muHMD means in translation), but NOT the son of god. God only speaks through him. He ain't his son. This is where this 'oneness' fixation comes from: La illah illa allah.

Those 'Shia' who stress 'Ali's role are successors of those who saw Jesus primarily in apocalyptic terms. (He was betrayed, died, will come back, take revenge - think of the hidden imam of Shiism) The word 'AL itself fits this mood. You will find traces of the discussion about the question of Jesus as God incarnate in the role presently assigned to 'Ali, too. God acts through him.

Finally those (Alawi among them) who habe a thing for Hussein: They put most importance on the acpect of self-sacrifice, deliverance and redemption. God offered himself, suffered, and saved through Jesus. Look up for yourself what the word HSN means, your first guess should be quite close. And how nicely the name "Adonis" fits this context, too

At 1:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did any one here really understand this column? I didn't get it.

The "spengler" guy is spouting off some high fallutin' university language to make everyone think he's superior to the rest of us yokels, wid our "ejukasion." And the poor web owner is trying to follow suite.

But I admit I didn't understand it. Guess I'm simple.

At 5:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, I learned several new things today. I had previously conflated the Alevis with the Alawites, so I'm in your debt for straightening that out.

I looked up "Hussein" diminutive of "Hasan." The source said "good." I was thinking "pious," but that must be a different word.

Your elucidation of the Sunnis and Shi'a in terms of Christian views was fascinating. I'd previously noticed the similarity between Shi'a views of Ali and Christian views of Jesus (and many paintings of Ali look rather 'Jesusy'), but I'd never seen the Sunni-Christian parallel before.

On the meaning of the name "Adonis," I had wondered about its connection to the Hebrew-Semitic "Adonai," but I still wonder. As a dying-and-rising god, of course, he has a certain resonance with Christian beliefs...

Thanks for the visit and comments, which are always interesting and informative.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I'll try to write more clearly in future blog entries.

On your part, be careful about attributing motives supposedly explaining why I chose a specific theme.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:05 AM, Blogger Dave said...

I've recently gained some perspective on the question of Islamic conceptions of reason and faith, as compared to Christian conceptions.

In the book "The Immortal Game," the history of chess is traced from India, through Persia and Islamic Arabia, to Europe. The author includes a brief history of the Islamic Renaissance and its influence on medieval Europe.

He sees the general acceptance and popularity of chess in the early Islamic world as evidence of a high respect for the acquisition of knowledge and as an implicit assertion of the centrality of free will and reason over blind fate in Islamic theology. He then extends this thesis to explain the prefertilization of the European Renaissance by Islamic thought in the Middle Ages.

I have also been reading Vine Deloria, who asserts (like many others) that Christianity and Islam represent different traditions on a continuum of linear, rationalistic, dualistic thought concerning man's relation to nature.

At 3:13 AM, Blogger Dave said...


I'm confused as to whether you are drawing an analogy or asserting theological continuity between early Christianity and early Islam. Luxenberg, for example, sees a continuity.

At 4:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dave, interesting remarks about chess.

The early Islamic world was very different from the Islamic world today, for as Islam expanded through conquest, it ruled as an elite in which non-Muslims vastly outnumbered Muslims. Islam had to accomodate itself to that reality, and I suspect that the cultural vitality of that early period can be at least partly explained by the imperial mixing of various groups.

Only as Islam consolidated itself and became the majority religion did Islamic regions begin to become rigid.

Of course, my view is based on a fairly thin reading about the history of Islam.

Your question to Erdal is interesting. Perhaps he will see and respond.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think there was continuity. I also think that "early Islam" (say, the period of Mohammed plus 150 years, as described by later Islam (in the Hadith and Sira) is a backward projection, and that "early Islam" was actually three or four Christain sects with objections to the concept of trinity who managed to fill the power vacuum left by the attrition war between Byzantinum and the Sassanid Persians.

The early territorial expansion of "Islam" was in my view not a military affair (a couple of Hejazi beduin sack Egypt, the near east and Persia? Please!). More likely, Damscus inherited, took over, or was even given the southern part of the Byzantine Empire directly, and without military means. How and when Persia was added, I don't remember. Everywhere in these regions, christianity of various stripes was the majority religion (even in Persia, where only the old elite clung to local religion). Nobody in any of these 'conquered' countries, appears to have noticed any conquest, military takeover, or indeed any new religion (such as Islam) What was widely noted and written down, however, was that "Ismaelites" (ie Arabs) were on the upswing within the established hierarchies.

I don't think the Hejaz (Mecca, Medina + lots of desert) has anything to do with it all. The movers of history were in Damascus: They were the local arab kings and rulers (called "Quraish", incidently), initially vassals of the Bytantines who gained in power in the southern provinces, and eventually went independent and turned aganist their former masters. To facilitate this, they managed to forge their theology into a new religion which was no longer a christian sect, but a distinct entity, with a suitable (but mythical) past.

This version has not only the advantage of being plausible, it is also the one that emerges from the surviving physical artefacts and diverse non-islamic texts of this period of 'early Islam'. The version of the Sunna can muster no evidence except itself.

At 9:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, I've heard glimmerings of this before, maybe partly from you. What would you suggest reading on this thesis?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the English-speaking world, Y. Nevo & J. Koren: Crossroads to Islam - The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State. New York 2003 is presently maybe the most influential book which assembles the available literature, most of it previously scattered in journals, in one edition. I've never read it, but I've been warned about this book by people who should know, for it heavily strays into apologetics and polemics; much of it is apparently secondhand wisdom, disguised as original thought.

As far as I know, the timeline and ideas I sketched above can be traced back as far as Julius Wellhausen and Ignatz Goldzieher, that is, a whole century. They resurfaced forcefully with Georg Ostrogorsky: Geschichte des byzantinischen Staates. München 1959, another classic. This is where I first conciously read (in the late 70s) what among Alevi has been a kind of undercover folklore, that I had almost completely forgot about. (my field was the Ottoman period and nascent Turkey, and religion not my strong suit)

The best books in this context though are probably: Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Ed.): Der frühe Islam. Berlin 2007 and its predecessor Karl-Heinz Ohlig & Gerd-Rüdiger Puin (Eds.): Die dunklen Anfänge, Berlin 2005. The contributors, especially Puin, are no lightweights, and fortunately aren't into polemics. This is proper old-school German scholarship. I read both and can recommend them.

At 4:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal. I'll look into this and at least try to read some reviews if I can't convince my wife to order the books...

Interesting remark about Alevi folklore. When I was in Germany, one of my friends was a Kurdish man named Memo, an Alawite, and he used to tell jokes about Mohammad, including a joke about why Mohammad declared pigs unclean. It had something to do with a pig disturbing his vegetable garden, if I recall.

Not that I think that there's much of historical truth in that particular story since the ban on pigs would have come down via Judaism (or some Jewish-Christian sects).

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:04 AM, Blogger Dave said...

Thanks, erdal. I'll look at one of Ohlig's books.

I may be coming late to the subject, but I had not seen this idea mentioned until the publicity about Luxenberg, following on the Danish cartoon controversy. Is there any particular reason for it to be unpopular among secular historians?


Post a Comment

<< Home