Saturday, June 09, 2007

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan: Part 3

Our tragic freedom?
(Image from Wikipedia)

A simple remark can sometimes open our eyes to vistas bringing us to know more about who we are by allowing us to see better from where we have come.

Paul Berman, drawing upon Tariq Ramadan's views as a Muslim thinker who can acknowledge some degree of self-doubt but not of a Cartesian doubt concerning God, observes:
The ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for a Promethean spirit of rebellion, and have never allowed for a sense of the tragic. ("Islamist, Journalist, and Defense of Liberalism," pages 16-17)
I want to unpack this remark in a moment, but it requires an overview onto the landscape of Ramadan's thought. Berman opens for us this vista:
[Ramadan tells us that h]e stands ... for "universal values" that are in line with the European Enlightenment. He stands for a rationalism seeded by doubt, though Ramadan prefers to invoke these concepts and beliefs by citing the wisdom of Islamic philosophers instead of their European counterparts. "Doubt did not begin with Descartes," Ramadan instructed [Ian] Buruma. "We have this construction today that the West and Islam are entirely separate worlds. This is wrong. Everything I am doing now, speaking of connections, intersections, universal values we have in common, this was already there in history." So he stands for the commonalities linking the West and Islam -- for the values that everyone ought to share, except that, in his version, he prefers to give these values an Islamic inflection. ("Islamist, Journalist, and Defense of Liberalism," pages 14-15)
The universal values thus diverge somehow, and Ramadan's remark on the divergence suggests at least a distant echo of Samuel Huntington's views on civilizational differences and clashes:
Ramadan does believe that Islam and the West are separate -- even cosmically separate. At least he appears to believe this in Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity. "We are indeed dealing with two different universes of reference," he writes, "two civilizations and two cultures." ("Islamist, Journalist, and Defense of Liberalism," page 16)
But let's not enter the house of Huntington, at least, not yet. Let's follow Berman's summary of Ramadan's views on doubt and difference:
On the topic of rational doubt and Descartes, he invokes the medieval philosopher al-Ghazali, who, in Ramadan's interpretation, proposed arguments that anticipated Descartes by several hundred years. This must be what Ramadan had in mind in pointing out to Buruma that "doubt did not begin with Descartes." But in Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity he goes into more detail, and the details suggest that al-Ghazali's notion of doubt points in one direction and Descartes' in another -- an observation that accords with al-Ghazali's reputation as the medieval philosopher who issued the most formidable challenge to high Islamic rationalism. About al-Ghazali, Ramadan writes, "At first, we can find innumerable correspondences between his thought and that of Descartes. Such correspondences certainly exist, but the frame of reference which gives the solution to going beyond doubt is fundamentally different." ("Islamist, Journalist, and Defense of Liberalism," page 16)
Universality? Difference? What frame of reference restricts doubt in Islam?
In Ramadan's view, ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for the kind of tension or difference between the sacred and the non-sacred that exists in Western thought. The ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for a Promethean spirit of rebellion, and have never allowed for a sense of the tragic. That is because in Islam, as per Ramadan (and here he invokes the medieval philosopher Ibn Taymiyya), the zone of the sacred contains only a single concept, which is tawhid, or the oneness of God. Tawhid leaves no room for tensions, rebellions, or doubts. A deep and tragic sense of doubt is not even a conceptual possibility. Buruma in the Times magazine pursued this philosophical matter sufficiently at least to ask Ramadan if he has "ever experienced any doubts himself." Ramadan replied: "Doubts about God, no." And Buruma seems not to have realized that, in responding with this easy certainty, Ramadan was surely offering more than a self-confident autobiographical observation. Doubt, in Ramadan's interpretation, can exist only within the limits allowed by tawhid--meaning that, for a proper Muslim, doubts about God are literally inconceivable. A Muslim, in Ramadan's formulation, may forget, but a Muslim cannot doubt. ("Islamist, Journalist, and Defense of Liberalism," pages 16-17)
A Muslim may forget God, but no Muslim can doubt, for the framework of God's oneness leaves no room for that sort of tragic doubt at the core of the West's Promethian rebellion:
The ancient Greek influences on Islam have never allowed for a Promethean spirit of rebellion, and have never allowed for a sense of the tragic. ("Islamist, Journalist, and Defense of Liberalism," pages 16-17)
Prometheus, as everyone knows, stole fire from the gods and brought it to mankind, a crime for which he was punished by being fettered to a cliff high up in the Caucasus Mountains, where an eagle (or a vulture) would daily tear out his liver and devour it before his eyes. Such was the judgement of Zeus. Just? Unjust? That was the question.

Translated into Christian terms, Prometheus took on an ambiguity beyond what he had stood for in the Greek myth. Who was Prometheus? A symbol of Satan in his rebellion against God? Or of us in ours?

In John Milton's Paradise Lost 9.716-720, Satan tempts Eve to rebellion by questioning the existence of The God through subtly insinuating the plural "Gods":
And what are Gods that Man may not become
As they, participating God-like food?
The Gods are first, and that advantage use
On our belief, that all from them proceeds;
I question it... (PL 9.716-720)
This questioning leads to a tragic human fall replicating Satan's own tragic fall, and the old story retold by Milton contains within it the West conception of itself as free to doubt even to the point of rebellion, a realm of freedom that may lead one toward tragic consequences from which one cannot escape ... unless, perhaps, through even more radical doubt.

This is the narrative of Modernity's rebellious emergence from the Medieval worldview. Is it a tragic rebellion, a fall from which we cannot recover except by repenting and asking to be let back in? Or a successful rebellion that has freed us from restrictions self-imposed because there never was, really, that sort of God that the Medieval world believed in.

Either way, the West affirms the fact of freedom, of rebellion, of doubt.

Islam, by contrast, allows no freedom, no rebellion, no doubt about Allah. For Islam, Satan is not the Great Rebel but merely the Tempter, and humanity does not rebel and fall but -- tempted by Satan -- merely forgets Allah and sins against Him out of forgetfulness. There's no tragedy, just a little stumble, and one can pick oneself back up, ask forgiveness, and go on in submission to Allah ... until the next stumble.

That's what Ramadan believes, without any doubt.

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At 10:33 PM, Blogger Dennis Mangan said...

Borges wrote a story in which the philosopher Averroes tries to come up with an Arabic word to translate the Greek "tragedy", and finds it an alien concept. I also wonder whether the Greek influences on Islamic culture were all that different from those on Western culture; it's not that the influences were different, but that Islam imposed a rigid orthodoxy that didn't allow for questions and doubt.

At 3:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dennis, thanks for reminding me of that story. I have to give a talk this fall on translation, so a rereading of Borges might be useful. You don't know of an online version of "Averroes' Search," do you?

I think that for Islamic Civilization, the Greek influence was felt as something foreign that was brought in, whereas in Western Civilization, the Greek influence is foundational.

What needs explanation is why Islam was able to impose a rigid orthodoxy, or why Islam lost its intellectual vivacity, or why whatever it was that went wrong went wrong. I'm still not sure how to characterize the problem because I don't really know enough of the history of Islam to judge.

So, I'm a bit like Averroes, searching for the right way to describe something very alien.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:25 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Here, too, is why Paul Berman gets it wrong.

Or here:


At 8:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, I read your post yesterday, for somebody named "Patricia" linked to it.

Oddly, "Patricia" worded her comment as though she were linking to her own post on Ramadan.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That painting is peculiar. A man who's about to get his liver eaten just stares ahead like he's waiting for the bus or watching a mind-numbing TV sit-com. Maybe the painting depicts the 247th day of his punishment, and by that time, Prometheus no longer grimaced as the eagle's beak clamped down on his abdomen.

At 3:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah ... now that you mention it, the painting is a bit odd. I suppose that it's supposed to signify Prometheus's stoic acceptance of his fate, but he might be thinking, "What a lame plot."

Jeffery Hodges

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