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From Islamism to Transcendentalism

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Thomas Carlyle’s political philosophy can be applied to inform Islamism and the construction of a post-Islamist political doctrine. This is because Carlyle’s conception of transcendentalism in Sartor Resartus is itself a philosophical/theological construct in the Platonic lineage that is a successor to Islam. Carlyle satirically conceptualized transcendentalism in the 19th century in Sartor Resartus, a work of fiction. F.A. Lea, reflecting on and arguing on behalf of the merits of Carlyle’s forecasts of the future during the midst of World War II in his book Carlyle: Prophet of To-day, calls Sartor Resartus the “highest achievement of the Romantic movement in Europe.” “Romanticism” is a nebulous construct but it connotes the European reaction to Enlightenment rationalism and empirical science by seeking to prioritize what it took to be beyond the scope of both rigid scientific positivism and dogmatic theology/ideology such as intuition, nature, spirituality, and aesthetics.

An analytical treatment of transcendentalism in the context of the global political climate in 2020 demonstrates it can be applied in the context of political development as a cosmopolitan post-Islamism. By casting Carlyle’s transcendentalism as “cosmopolitan,” I argue that it is a post-Islamism that belongs to all the world and is applicable to be “at home” all over the world. As such, Carlyle’s transcendentalism is not a post-Islamism for the Middle East solely but could initially be most applicable in the context of Islamic Middle Eastern countries. Subscribers to liberalism, communism, and Islamism promote each ideology as global and cosmopolitan. Like Islam, Carlyle’s transcendentalism is a philosophy/theology that can be cast as a political doctrine to serve a political purpose. In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle offers a comprehensive philosophy that is simultaneously a moral, social, and political philosophy in much the same fashion as how Islam has been converted into the political ideology of Islamism.

               Carlyle’s transcendentalism is not a widely practiced philosophy and it has not, heretofore, been recognized as a political doctrine. Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus was a chief inspiration for American Transcendentalism as a 19th century intellectual and social movement led by perhaps the two most iconic American philosophers on the world stage—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson and Thoreau were also inspired by Hinduism and Indian philosophy to elevate the mysticism of nature/spirituality as a primary focal point of their attention. Like Islamism, transcendentalism has yet to be constructed as a coherent doctrine that is accepted universally by those who identify with the respective doctrines. For example, both Islamism and transcendentalism are much less theoretically dogmatic than Marxism as a political doctrine.

Carlyle describes the tenets of the “philosophy of clothes”—a term synonymous with transcendentalism–through the voice of Professor Diogenes Teufelsdrӧckh, the protagonist in Sartor Resartus:

‘Whatsoever sensibly exists, whatsoever represents Spirit to Spirit, is properly a Clothing, a suit of Raiment, put on for a season, and to be laid off. Thus in this one pregnant subject of CLOTHES, rightly understood, is included all that men have thought, dreamed, done, and been: the whole external Universe and what it holds is but Clothing; and the essence of all Science lies in the PHILOSOPHY OF CLOTHES.’

Carlyle’s philosophy of clothes culminates in attaining transcendentalism. Carlyle defines transcendentalism succinctly as the view that matter is spirit and as such is the manifestation of spirit. In other words, transcendentalism views the entirety of the universe (and all that comprises it) as enchanted with spiritual divinity rather than entirely bereft of spiritual divinity. As such, transcendentalism is a minimalist and nominal theological dogma that offers no theological narrative beyond such a simple theism. Carlyle thus defines transcendentalism as the view that all that is material and immaterial in the entirety of the universe (and thus in the entirety of human history) is ephemeral and cannot be accounted for without considering it as symbolic of a divine spiritual order. Carlyle concludes that all science seeks to account for what comprises the universe and thus transcendentalism rests at the apex of all scientific deliberations. The role of a transcendentalist is to ponder the universe in its entirety as a manifestation of spirit.

Transcendentalism is relevant to politics as a prospective political doctrine in that it offers a means to achieve consensus and yield social solidarity in the context of local and national political communities and in the context of the global political community. Carlyle derives conceptions of social solidarity and renunciation (of antagonism and economic consumption) as corollaries of his conception of transcendentalism. At this juncture, it should be acknowledged that the New Age and counterculture that defined much of the West (and the world) in the 1960s and 1970s was an unconscious, incoherent, and non-mainstream reincarnation of American Transcendentalism as a descendant of American Transcendentalism. The elements of the New Age and counterculture—non-dogmatic spirituality, social solidarity, and renunciation of economic consumption—were once coherently constructed and deemed a superior philosophy relative to dogmatic theology and dogmatic materialism (aka capitalism and communism) by Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau as modern Platonic philosophers.

Carlyle frames transcendentalism in another manner by asking, through the voice of Teufelsdrӧckh, “‘what is Nature? Ha! why do I not name thee GOD? Art thou not the ‘Living Garment of God?’ O Heavens, is it, in very deed, He, then, that ever speaks through thee; that lives and loves in thee, that lives and loves in me?’” It is in this context that Carlyle is “transcendental” in concluding that all matter embodies divine spirit. It is on this basis that Carlyle delivers what is perhaps the climactic thesis of Sartor Resartus, which is also a succinct definition of what he coins the “Everlasting Yea” as a concept that informs transcendentalism: “‘The Universe is not dead and demoniacal, a charnel-house with spectres; but god-like, and my Father’s!’” Upon attaining this perspective, Teufelsdrӧckh reflects on its social application and its implications to achieve social solidarity:

‘With other eyes too could I now look upon my fellow man; with an infinite Love, an infinite Pity. Poor, wandering, wayward man! Art thou not tried, and beaten with stripes, even as I am? Ever, whether thou bear the Royal mantle or the Beggar’s gabardine, art thou not so weary, so heavy-laden; and thy Bed of Rest is but a Grave. O my Brother, my Brother! why cannot I shelter thee in my bosom, and wipe away all tears from thy eyes.—Truly, the din of many-voiced Life, which, in this solitude, with the mind’s organ, I could hear, was no longer a maddening discord, but a melting one: like inarticulate cries…which in the ear of Heaven are prayers. The poor Earth, with her poor joys, was now my needy Mother, not my cruel Stepdame; Man, with his so mad Wants and so mean Endeavours, had become the dearer to me; and even for his sufferings and his sins, I now first named him Brother.’

The non-dogmatic (i.e. not Christian or Islamic but simultaneously post-Christian, post-Islamic, and post-dogmatic) view of humanity as an embodiment of spiritual divinity yields the legitimacy and validity of social solidarity and the corresponding renunciation of antagonism.

Carlyle theorizes of the primacy of human spiritual interests relative to and as a function of the insatiability of human material appetites. In this context, renunciation can be defended and legitimized as rational through Teufelsdrӧckh’s philosophical construction:

‘Man’s Unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his Greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite. Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two; for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose…So true is it, what I then said, that the Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator, as by lessening your Denominator. Nay, unless my Algebra deceive me, Unity itself divided by Zero will give Infinity. Make thy claim of wages a zero, then; thou hast the world under thy feet. Well did the Wisest of our time write: ‘It is only with Renunciation (Entsagen) that Life, properly speaking, can be said to begin.’’

Essentially, without pursuing renunciation humanity (at the level of the collective and at the level of the individual) is either consciously or unconsciously pursuing the satisfaction of an insatiable appetite for materialist consumption. Renunciation of materialist consumption is thus the only means for humanity (at the level of the collective and level of the individual) to not be dissatisfied and makes primary humanity’s non-materialist spirituality. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that humanity needs to achieve a decent material standard of living that crosses a minimal threshold and then renounce any additional materialist consumption (which is bound to entail the pursuit of infinite consumption). The current unprecedented and unsustainable nature of increasing consumer and national debt in the context of the United States provides an exemplary lens to view Carlyle’s conception of renunciation.

An inference that can be drawn from Sartor Resartus is that humanity must attain the “Everlasting Yea” at the level of the individual so that social solidarity could then be yielded at the collective level. A corollary inference could be made that human conflict in all its forms will persist and replicate itself indefinitely until every individual reaches the “Everlasting Yea.” Essentially, one must consciously come to the conclusion that not only oneself is the embodiment of divine spirit but all of one’s fellows embody divine spirit in the same non-dogmatic sense so as to renounce antagonism and achieve social solidarity. Dogmatic theologies, by contrast, facilitate dis-unity and conflict about their incommensurable theological doctrines.

Conflict, more generally, takes place because the antagonistic parties are unconscious of the notion that their disparate and highly dogmatic ideologies/theologies are individually and collectively “dream-theorems” and such a realization would unify them, ostensibly, into becoming transcendentalists. Carlyle asks, through the voice of Teufelsdrӧckh, “‘what are all your national Wars, with their Moscow Retreats, and sanguinary hate-filled Revolutions, but the Somnambulism of uneasy Sleepers?’” Carlyle implies that those who are sleeping to “dream-theorems” (i.e. ideologies/theologies themselves not transcendentalism), and thus not awake to transcendentalism, engage in wars and revolutions as a form of “sleep-walking” to their “dream-theorems.” Such wars and revolutions take place as a function of humanity collectively being unawake to and not subscribing to transcendentalism. Carlyle’s discussion of being unawake to transcendentalism is analogous to Plato’s allegory of the cave in the sense that non-transcendentalists are akin to those in the cave who think the shadows on the wall are the truth. By analogy, non-transcendentalists believe their dogmatic ideologies and/or theologies are truth when, from the vantage point of transcendentalism, they are arbitrary, mutually incommensurable, and thus fodder for mutually interminable conflict.

The inference can thus be made that Carlyle offers a gateway for humanity to achieve mutual accord rather than discord if hypothetically humanity were to universally attain to the “Everlasting Yea.” This is because the “Everlasting Yea” provides a communitarian model to attain communal existence through the transcendental rather than through divisive material attributes such as race, economic class, incommensurable dogmatic theological traditions, etc. Carlyle’s transcendentalism embodies a rationale for collective renunciation rather than collective antagonism.

The exposition of Carlyle’s transcendentalism and his derivative philosophical conclusions with respect to renunciation and social solidarity provides a foundation for the political application of transcendentalism as a prospective political doctrine. Transcendentalism’s relevance to politics is that the consideration of its prospective hegemony as an ideology itself provides a prospective telos for a populace to attain, a telos that has been hidden and has gone unrecognized in the analysis of Sartor Resartus and in the history of political thought.The universal popular consciousness of universal spiritual divinity (with the absence of dogma)could potentially facilitate renunciation and social solidarity popularly in much the same manner it did for Teufelsdrӧckh personally. The prospective phenomenon of transcendentalism’s political application could hypothetically connote a new stage of human political development. Carlyle’s transcendentalism supplies a coherent doctrine that could potentially be instrumental in achieving a material or political end. Transcendentalism is an anti-ideology in that it does not seek to proselytize converts to a strict dogma and is “immaterial” on economic matters in that it promotes renunciation rather than insatiable economic consumption. Carlyle makes known, through the voice of the narrator, that “wild as it looks, this Philosophy of Clothes, can we ever reach its real meaning, promises to reveal new-coming Eras, the first dim rudiments and already-budding germs of a nobler Era, in Universal History.”

Transcendentalism, Christianity, Islam, and Islamism

Transcendentalism can be cast as a successor philosophy/theology to Islam (and Islamism) because Carlyle and American Transcendentalism is recognized as post-Christian and Carlyle, Emerson, and Thoreau themselves consciously identified as post-Christian. As Islam was an evolution from Christianity subsequent to Christianity’s inauguration, transcendentalism was an evolution from both Christianity and Islam subsequent to Islam’s inauguration. Like Islam’s inherent recognition of the inadequacy of Christianity, transcendentalism was incarnated with the inherent view that the Christian and Islamic theological traditions needed to be built upon (and could be preserved as a function of being re-tailored) with an innovation.

Transcendentalism, as an evolution from Christianity and Islam, embodies a much different standing than a rejection of Christianity and Islam. Carlyle both praises and critiques Christianity and Islam and provides an argument in defense of transcendentalism as a doctrine on a higher plane. Such praise of Christianity and Islam alongside recognizing their inadequacies is literally not a popular track to take and leaves nearly the entire universe of the public uncomfortable in that transcendentalism is inherently a third-way to dogmatic theological tradition on the one hand and secular atheism on the other. Transcendentalism, by leaving Christians, Muslims, adherents to all other dogmatic theologies, and agnostics/atheists uneasy, can be cast and perceived as a type of Hegelian synthesis of theological dogmatism and atheism. As a synthesis, it too embodies a type of hybrid and moderation between the polar and comparatively extreme positions of theological dogmatism on the one end and the dogmatic faith in atheism on the other end. This is another lens to be able to cast and construct transcendentalism as a type of cosmopolitan consensus in the context of global religiosity.

               Carlyle is perhaps the most recognizable and most ardent European Islamo-phile in modern European intellectual history. He lectured publicly and courageously on Muhammad (and not Christ) as the embodiment of “Hero as Prophet” before a London audience (in the heart of Christendom) in 1840 and published his lecture in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Although himself not a Muslim, Carlyle’s praise of Muhammad on multiple occasions makes possible the inference that Carlyle’s transcendentalism can be cast as and situated as an evolutionary development within the context of the Islamic tradition. Carlyle’s affinity toward Islam demonstrates a consensus between himself and Islam with respect to valuing the spiritual and divine over the material, earthly, and utilitarian. For example, Carlyle chastises Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism by drawing on Muhammad in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History:

Benthamee Utility, virtue by Profit and Loss; reducing this God’s world to a dead brute Steam engine, the infinite celestial Soul of Man to a kind of Hay-balance for weighing hay and thistles on, pleasures and pains on:–If you ask me which gives, Mahomet or they, the beggarlier and falser view of Man and his Destinies in this Universe, I will answer, It is not Mahomet!

According to Carlyle, the “advance to a very different epoch of religion” from paganism to Islam is a “great change” and Carlyle remarks “what a change and progress is indicated here, in the universal condition and thoughts of men!” Casting Islam as a “change and progress” inherently casts it as a milestone in the continuous evolution of how humanity theorizes with respect to the divine. In this context of continuous theological evolution from paganism to Christianity to Islam, Carlyle characterizes Muhammad, perhaps coyly, as “by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one.” In Sartor Resartus, Teufelsdrӧckh defines theology, what he calls “Church Clothes,” as “the Forms, the Vestures, under which men have at various periods embodied and represented for themselves the Religious Principle; that is to say, invested the Divine Idea of the World with a sensible and practically active Body, so that it might dwell among them as a living and life-giving WORD.” Such a characterization underscores Carlyle’s conception of the variability, evolution, and perhaps a level of arbitrariness of dogmatic theologies that naturally occurs in the context of history.

The juxtaposition of Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones with Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is valuable in illustrating the prospective political application that can be made of Carlyle’s transcendentalism. Qutb can be cast as a type of “default” representative of Islamism, as there is no official representative of Islamism. Islamism can be defined as a pluralistic movement to revive Islam’s political application as a doctrine for governance in the 20th century since the end of the Caliphate of Constantinople in 1924. The political tactics associated with Islamism are diverse, ranging from grassroots political organizing in the context of political parties and electoral politics all the way to violent terrorism associated with terrorist groups. President Erdogan’s recent reversion of Hagia Sophia to an Islamic religious institution can be perceived as a mildly Islamist policy compared to the violent extremism of groups such as Taliban and ISIS.

Qutb’s Milestones is perhaps the most influential source of modern Islamic political theory and a chief intellectual inspiration for Islamism. The book’s influence on Islamism can be analogized to the influence of Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” on communism. In other words, Milestones is a call to action to implement Islamism as the sole hegemonic political doctrine and seeks to provide an intellectual defense of the supremacy of Islamism. Qutb is considered a spiritual and intellectual father of Islamism in general and the radical Islamist group al Qaeda, in particular.

An analytical and literal interpretation of Qutb leaves an opening to consider the possibility of the evolution of Islamism into transcendentalism. Qutb cryptically calls on “the establishment of Islamic society” on the basis of a “movement” that takes the “form of an evolutionary system.” Islam’s preservation in transcendentalism and transcendentalism’s capacity to be a universal, cosmopolitan, and non-dogmatic doctrine to achieve consensus in recognition of the divine order (alongside its commitments to renunciation of economic, racial, and national antagonisms) demonstrates the theoretical pathway by which Islamism could evolve and embrace transcendentalism as a new stage of political development. After all, it is the unyielding devotion to Islam as a singular, particularistic, ossified, and branded theological dogmatism on the part of Islamists that prevents the realization of what may be called the spirit of “Islamic society.” Moreover, the realization of the spirit of Islamism is prevented from taking place given that Islamists themselves each adhere to plural particularistic versions of Islam and themselves cannot agree with respect to the theology of Islam.

Carlyle’s conception of religion is in profound tension with Qutb’s commitment to Islam as the only valid religion. Qutb is adamant that Islam is the final doctrine to serve all of humanity’s needs both at the level of the individual and the collective and is the only viable totalizing doctrine to guide humanity both in the public and private spheres. He thus offers a basis as to why we should reverse course from being engulfed in jahiliyyah, a state in which God’s laws are rejected, to embrace Islam for every need in personal and social life.

Jahiliyyah is a term taken from the Koran and is usually translated as the “age of ignorance,” in reference to the pre-Islamic era on the Arabian peninsula. According to Qutb, Jahiliyyah in its modern incarnation “owes its existence to the putrid element of lordship of man over man, and which separates man from the all-embracing system of the universe.” Qutb writes that the extermination of Jahiliyyah has been humanity’s grand project and that modern Jahiliyyah has been the condition of humanity’s existence since the dawn of civilization, in both the pre-Islamic and post-Islamic eras. Elementally, Jahiliyyah as the hegemonic social order has persisted largely unchanged throughout the entirety of human history.All hegemonic non-Islamic political systems ranging from democracy to aristocracy to communism can be cast as Jahiliyyah since they perpetuate the rule of man over man and thus humanity’s oppression at the hands of humanity. Qutb theorizes on the prospects of a compromise with Jahiliyyah:

Islam does not accept any half-way compromise with Jahiliyyah. Whether it is the question of its concepts and ideology or the laws of life based on this concept, either Islam shall exist or Jahiliyyah. No third course is acceptable or agreeable to Islam in which Jahiliyyah and Islam share equally. Islam’s point of view in this regard is quite clear and bright. It says that Truth is a unit which cannot be analysed. If there will be no Truth, it shall be falsehood. Mutual intermixing and intermingling of Truth and Falsehood and their co-existence is impossible. Either the command of Allah will prevail or that of Jahiliyyah. Either the Divine code will operate or the desire of self-will rule.

Qutb describes the dynamics of the relationship between Islam and Jahiliyyah:

There is a wide yawning valley between Islam and Jahiliyyah which cannot be bridged for the purpose that both should be able to meet midway. If at all such a bridge could be built it could be for the purpose that the folk of Jahiliyyah should cross over and take refuge in the lap of Islam, whether they are the so-called Islam-professing residents of Islamic country or those residing outside it.

Qutb defines religion as “the system and way of life which brings under its fold the human life with all its details.” Qutb contends that the problem religion confronts is “to banish all the fabricated gods through the establishment of the rule of God, Most High.” Qutb, it can be inferred, vindicates Carlyle’s transcendentalism with his claim that all previous theological conceptions of god were “fabricated” while not suggesting precisely the rationale behind why he thinks all other gods were “fabricated” yet the Islamic god is an exception to the rule. Islam itself is a re-fabrication and evolution from Judaism and Christianity and is premised on the failure of these religions. Yet, Qutb calls on all “fabricated” gods to be banished and labels all Jewish and Christian societies as “Jahili” societies. Such a contradiction can be resolved by subscribing to Carlyle’s transcendentalism as a non-dogmatic and non-particularistic theism that can be positioned as post-Islamism.

Carlyle’s transcendentalism can be theorized and constructed as embodying and preserving Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in a non-denominational and non-dogmatic modern theism. As such, transcendentalism can be cast as a theism that is suitable for modern, cosmopolitan, and universal subscription. Transcendentalism is the opposite of atheism in that it is purely theism without the theology. It is a construct that can be applied to achieve an ideal social order. Just as Marxism is dogmatic atheist materialism and Islamism is a dogmatic political theology, transcendentalism is a non-dogmatic philosophical/theological construct. The application of an analytical and political lens to transcendentalism allows one to consider how the political and social orders on any scale (from a local community to the global community) could change if a simple and non-dogmatic theism reigned hegemonic.

Carlyle’s transcendentalism shows itself to embody what Qutb sought to argue is embodied by Islam, namely that Islam is “different in respect of its nature and reality from all concepts which have been rampant in the world so far.”According to Qutb, humanity must achieve a perfect harmony with the nature of the universe and such a harmony would naturally connote the “end” of human political development:

When man evolves an atmosphere of coordination and uniformity with nature, it results in the establishment of a state of concordance between the mutual relationship of man and the general struggle of life, for when man adopts an attitude of cooperation with nature it consequently follows in the birth of complete agreement between human life and the universe, and only one system prevails in the human life and the universe. Thus the collective side of mans’ life becomes free from mutual clash and discord, and mankind is benefitted with total goodness. Thereafter various (mysteries) of the universe do not remain secret any more. Man becomes the knower of natures’ secrets. Hidden powers of the universe become apparent to him, and he gets the trace of the hidden treasures in the spacious universe. He harnesses all those powers and treasures under the direction of God’s laws for the total well-being and prosperity of mankind, leaving no room for any clash or conflict between man and the nature. Otherwise there is a constant struggle between them and the desires and carnal passions are raising their head against the Divine code.

Qutb prescribes the ideal society as being a society not “in a condition that some are driven by greed while others burning with envy; that all of the affairs of the society are decided by the baton and sword, by threat, duress and violence; that the hearts of the population are desolate and their spirits broken, as is happening under the systems which are based on the authority of others than Allah’s.” For Qutb, Islamic society suppresses “all the frivolous prejudices and weak associations of race, colour, language, country, material considerations and geographical boundaries.”

According to Qutb:

[Communism] claimed to demolish all the walls which were raised by colour and race, nation and country and geography. But the foundations of this society were also not erected on the all-embracing base of “human friendship” rather “class conflict” was made the basis of this society. Viewing from this angle, the communist society is another facet of the ancient Roman society. While the Roman society conferred distinction on the “nobility” the communist society imparts this status to the “Proletariate”, and the underlying emotion is the feeling of hatred, malice and envy. Such a degraded and malicious society cannot bear any other fruit except exciting the base human feelings.

Carlyle concludes in a manner largely synonymous with Sayyid Qutb’s 20th century advocacy of Islamism: “for only in looking heavenward, take it in what sense you may, not in looking earthward, does what we can call Union, mutual Love, Society, begin to be possible.” Carlyle describes the teachings of Islam and how Islam’s core philosophical precepts are shared by Christianity and are thus not exclusive to a particularistic and ecclesiastical theological tradition but offer a universal, non-dogmatic, and non-branded application to philosophy/theology writ-large:

[God] made us at first, sustains us yet; we and all things are but the shadow of Him; a transitory garment veiling the Eternal Splendour. ‘allahakbar, God is great;’—and then also ‘Islam,’ That we must submit to God. That our whole strength lies in resigned submission to Him, whatsoever, He do to us. For this world, and for the other! The thing He sends to us, were it death and worse than death, shall be good, shall be best; we resign ourselves to God.—‘If this be Islam,’ says Goethe, ‘do we not all live in Islam?’ Yes, all of us that have any moral life; we all live so….I say, this is yet the only true morality known. A man is right and invincible, virtuous and on the road towards sure conquest, precisely while he joins himself to the great deep Law of the World, in spite of all superficial laws, temporary appearances, profit-and-loss calculations; he is victorious while he cooperates with that great central Law, not victorious otherwise:–and surely his first chance of cooperating with it, or getting into the course of it, is to know with his whole soul that it is; that it is good, and alone good! This is the soul of Islam; it is properly the soul of Christianity;–for Islam is definable as a confused form of Christianity; had Christianity not been, neither had it been. Christianity also commands us, before all, to be resigned to God….

Carlyle, in his lecture on Muhammad, remarks that “Islam means in its way Denial of Self, Annihilation of Self [and] this is yet the highest Wisdom that Heaven has revealed to our Earth.” In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle similarly comments that “Annihilation of Self [is] the first preliminary moral Act” to attaining the “Everlasting Yea,” which he casts as the highest philosophical perspective. Carlyle, in discussing Muhammad’s inspiration for the concept of annihilation of self, de-emphasizes the importance of Islam’s theological narrative and underscores Islam as a contribution to philosophy: “[Muhammad] called it revelation and the angel Gabriel;–who of us yet can know what to call it?  It is the ‘inspiration of the Almighty’ that giveth us understanding. To know; to get into the truth of anything, is ever a mystic act,–of which the best Logics can but babble on the surface.” In this quote, Carlyle sounds as if synonymous with Plato in his endorsement of the concept of intellectual and mystical intuition as a means of retrieving and realizing the Platonic Forms on Earth.

Carlyle too theorizes of what he takes to be the inadequacy of Christianity when he writes, as a question Teufelsdrӧckh would hypothetically pose to Voltaire:

“‘Sufficiently hast thou demonstrated this proposition, considerable or otherwise: That the Mythus of the Christian Religion looks not in the eighteenth century as it did in the eighth…But what next? Wilt thou help us to embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live? What! thou hast no faculty in that kind?’”

The inference can be made while synthesizing Carlyle’s commentary on Christianity and Islam with Carlyle’s conceptualization of transcendentalism in Sartor Resartus that transcendentalism as a post-Christian and post-Islamic philosophy/theology has compatibility with Christianity and Islam and is a legitimate successor in their lineage. Essentially, Christianity and Islam can be viewed as milestones on the road to the incarnation of transcendentalism as a non-dogmatic and non-particularistic account of spiritual divinity. As such, the inference can also be made that Carlyle’s semi-endorsements of Christianity and Islam implies their preservation and embodiment in transcendentalism. An inference from this is, as a function of such compatibility among transcendentalism, Islam, and Christianity, Muslims and Christians can retain their theological beliefs in Islam and Christianity as creeds while also mutually adopting transcendentalism as a type of theological/philosophical consensus. Such a consensus would embody a means of being able to simultaneously retain one’s theological beliefs while avoiding hostile antagonism toward others that subscribe to disparate theological beliefs. On a larger scale, transcendentalism could provide the means to attain such a consensus among the adherents to the universe of non-transcendentalist ideologies and theologies that are incommensurable and thus naturally antagonistic toward one another. For example, in the Indian case, the religious conflict between Hinduism and Islam provides a context for the prospective application and inauguration of transcendentalism as a means to attain conflict resolution. 

John Rawls set about theorizing a prospective “overlapping consensus” to ensure the stability of liberalism since he articulated the problem of liberalism as follows: “How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?” Carlyle’s transcendentalism offers such a prospective consensus, but on a larger scale beyond merely the scope of liberalism in the context of a nation-state. Transcendentalism also potentially can foster consensus among nation-states in the context of international relations by embodying simultaneously a post-ideological and non-nationalist doctrine.

Just as Islam has been appropriated for political purposes by Islamism, transcendentalism can be cast as a political doctrine to achieve what Islamism could not. Islamism could not achieve its aims to unite humanity in submission to the divine as a means to resolve economic, racial, and nationalist conflict (and all forms of conflict) because Islam is a dogmatic and particularistic theology that is mired in interminable conflict with competing dogmatic and particularistic theologies. Since Islam is in competition on the plane of dogmatic and particularistic theologies, such competition is incommensurable. There is no empirical means to establish the superiority of either Christianity or Islam (or any of the other dogmatic and particularistic theologies) over its counterparts in the realm of theology. As a function of this, there is no philosophical means to establish the superiority of Islamism in the realm of political ideology (that includes liberalism, Marxism, and fascism), which has necessarily resulted in jihad being the primary mechanism to establish Islamism as a hegemonic doctrine for governance.

Conclusions

Alasdair MacIntyre’s conceptualization of incommensurability informs Islamism’s status of being incapable of establishing its hegemony through mechanisms other than jihad.In After Virtue, MacIntyre asserts that, in the context of liberalism, it is impossible to achieve consensus of any form because political disagreements are incommensurable and thus interminable. MacIntyre conceives of incommensurability as taking place when divergent arguments with respect to a political, philosophical, and/or moral problem are logically valid, the conclusions follow from the premises, yet “the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another.” MacIntyre theorizes on the bleak nature of contemporary moral and political debates:

Moral philosophy, as it is dominantly understood, reflects the debates and disagreements of the culture so faithfully that its controversies turn out to be unsettlable in just the way that the political and moral debates themselves are. It follows that our society cannot hope to achieve moral consensus.

MacIntyre’s conceptualization of incommensurability provides a foundation to be able to assert that, as a function of there being no rational means of weighing the claims of Islam against the claims of Christianity (or any other dogmatic theology), there is no rational means of weighing the claims of Islamism against the claims of any other highly dogmatic political doctrine.

Transcendentalism, as a non-dogmatic and non-particularistic doctrine, has the means to achieve the aims of Islamism, namely universal world peace. Carlyle’s conception of transcendentalism was informed and influenced by Kant and Hegel, and it could be a fulfilment of their mutually-antagonistic doctrines. In the context of Hegel, Carlyle’s transcendentalism was conceptualized in Sartor Resartus ironically largely as a satirical parody (and refutation) of Hegelian philosophy. That Carlyle’s conception of transcendentalism itself could represent the synthesis of Hegelian dialectics to achieve the “end of history” in a political climate favorable to its inauguration as a practical ideology almost two centuries after the publication of Sartor Resartus should definitely be entertained. Transcendentalism has a favorable climate because we have witnessed the dissolution of Marxism (with the exception of China and a few other states) and fascism, leaving liberalism and Islamism as the remaining hegemonic ideologies. Liberalism is vulnerable to dissolution as a function of the COVID-19 pandemic dissolving the liberal dream of the pursuit of insatiable economic consumption as the “end of history” and the concurrent increasingly transgressive (i. e. violent) political contention in Europe and the United States with no long-term liberal resolution on the horizon. Carlyle’s transcendentalism could be a vehicle to secure Kant’s theory of a global“perpetual peace”by concurrently taking up the mantle of post-liberalism and post-Islamism.

The recognition of transcendentalism as such would leave only atheism/nihilism as a competitor doctrine. The elevation of the hegemony of atheism/nihilism promises only an elevation of perpetual discord in the context of every individual going down Nietzsche’s path of becoming an Übermensch and seeking to dominate all other individuals in the absence of any shared social doctrine. With the decline of Platonism and Christianity (and religiosity generally)in the West, we have in fact been witnessing atheist materialism wreak havoc in the form of Marxism on the left and fascism on the right as partners that engage in a mutual self-cancellation. Those elements that date from the 20th century have increasingly re-emerged in Europe and the United States in the 21st century under such guises as “anti-fascism” and populism and are bound only to lead to a similar conflagration as World War II.

Thoreau equated Carlyle with Muhammad as a means of underscoring what he took to be the magnitude of Carlyle’s influence: “[Carlyle] has the earnestness of a prophet. In an age of pedantry and dilettantism, he has no grain of these in his composition. There is no where else, surely, in recent readable English, or other books, such direct and effectual teaching, reproving, encouraging, stimulating, earnestly, vehemently, almost like Mahomet, like Luther.” Emerson comments, with respect to Carlyle, “He is a man of the world. He does not belong to this or that country only, but by his broad genius and talent of satire, which he throws about him, he is cosmopolitan; but his aims are as good as can be.”

That Carlyle wrote Sartor Resartus as a work of satirical fiction and a parody of Hegel’s historicism should not prevent an analytical treatment of Sartor Resartus. Carlyle’s cryptic verbosity, hyperbole, and satirical tone in Sartor Resartus has blinded readers from acknowledging the practical applications of Carlyle’s philosophical conclusions. To put it as a metaphor, Sartor Resartus is perceived as just another bookcase when in actuality it is a magic bookcase that embodies and conceals a passageway toward transcendentalism as a new doctrine. Transcendentalism can be constructed as a viable political doctrine as a function of being situated in the context of other doctrines. By doing such, the vulnerabilities of other doctrines can be seen through the “lens” of transcendentalism.

Carlyle’s transcendentalism is an alternative to all other ideologies and theologies, which are necessarily and inherently dogmatic, particularistic, and mutually incommensurable since they are themselves not transcendentalism. Carlyle chastises dogma when he writes, “Which of your Philosophical Systems is other than a dream-theorem; a net quotient, confidently given out, where divisor and dividend are both unknown?” Such dogmatic ideological and/or theological “dream-theorems” would not be so bad if they did not serve as fodder for non-violent and violent conflict between needlessly antagonized parties. Wars and revolutions continuously replicate because the world is unawake to and unconscious of transcendentalism as the means to put them  to an end. Ostensibly, dogma will fight dogma, identity will fight identity, nation will fight nation, and scarce resources will be antagonized over until there is a universal acceptance of transcendentalism as an anti-dogma and acceptance of renunciation as a rational social virtue that is a corollary (and derivative of transcendentalism).

The analogy to Plato’s allegory of the cave is valuable in this context because the philosopher descending back into the cave to bring wisdom to the cave-dwellers is analogous to a transcendentalist informing the uneasy sleepers of their somnambulism. As Plato wrote in The Republic:

You must go down, then, each in his turn, to live with the rest and let your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. You will then see a thousand times better than those who live there always; you will recognize every image for what it is and know what it represents, because you have seen justice, beauty, and goodness in their reality; and so you and we shall find life in our commonwealth no mere dream, as it is in most existing states, where men live fighting one another about shadows and quarrelling for power, as if that were a great prize; whereas in truth government can be at its best and free from dissension only where the destined rulers are least desirous of holding office.

Carlyle himself never promoted transcendentalism, likely because the economic, political, and social climates would not have even facilitated his contemplation of transcendentalism as a viable hegemonic doctrine for governance in the context of what was then only the advent of the hegemony of industrial liberal capitalism in partnership with the longstanding and still-potent hegemony of Christianity.  

Teufelsdrӧckh speaks of “‘Religion, in unnoticed nooks, weaving for herself new Vestures’” and it is on such a basis the narrator in Sartor Resartusasks the question, “Teufelsdrӧckh himself being one of the loom-treaddles?” Carlyle follows up this question immediately with the following remark from the narrator of Sartor Resartus: “Elsewhere [Teufelsdrӧckh] quotes without censure that strange aphorism of Saint-Simon’s, concerning which and whom so much were to be said: L’age d’or qu’une aveugle tradition a place jusqu’ici dans le passé est devant nous; The golden age which a blind tradition has hitherto placed in the Past is Before us.” It is at this particular place in Sartor Resartus where the inference can be made that Carlyle prophesies that transcendentalism will become a viable doctrine in the future because transcendentalism is precisely the “new Vesture” that Teufelsdrӧckh “loom-treaddles” and such a vesture would inaugurate the new “golden age.”

Brian Wolfel is a PhD candidate in political science at Syracuse University. His research seeks to apply and construct American Transcendentalism as a political doctrine in the context of liberalism, Islamism, Marxism, and fascism and in the context of international relations.

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Muslim-Evangelical alliance strives to create religious and political middle ground

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A recent unprecedented alliance between Muslims and Evangelicals takes on added significance in a world in which human rights are on the defensive, religious groups tend to forge political as well as ideational partnerships, and the role of the clergy in multiple Muslim-majority countries has come under scrutiny.

The alliance potentially could create a platform for voices in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which significant segments of the youth who constitute a majority of the population, increasingly reject state-controlled, ritualistic forms of religion and distrust clerics subservient to the government.

It could also offer a middle ground on which elements of the secular centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based values in deeply polarised parts of the world, particularly in the West.

International affairs and inter-faith scholar Michael Driessen suggested in an email to this writer that the recently forged alliance between Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), fits a pattern of partnerships between diverse religious groups that goes beyond seeking to protect minorities to promotion of social cohesion and fraternity.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Interfaith Forum of the Group of 20 or G20 that brings together the world’s largest economies, Tunisian Islam scholar Nejia Al-Ourimi seemed to anticipate the alliance when she argued that reform of Islam would have to be bottom-up and originate in civil society rather than top-down and directed and controlled by autocratic rulers who see it as a way of branding themselves and their nations as well as and one way of ensuring survival.

Ms. Al-Ourimi reasoned further that genuine inclusivity was precluded in much of the Middle East because most Arab constitutions assume that the state has a religion. She went on to say that “what we need to do is reframe the traditional approaches of linking religion to legislation. We must find leaders who are willing to withdraw from the traditional way of participating in the public sphere—through the legal and legislative dimensions—and return from a ‘values’ perspective to guide ethical efforts.”

In a contribution to a recently published report on Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship issued by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Beirut-based Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity (Adyan), Ms. Al-Oumiri points to a series of lofty, lovey-dovey inter-faith statements issued in the past decade by different combinations of Arab Muslim and non-Muslim clerics, religious and secular intellectuals, and politicians.

The statements constituted attempts by Muslim religious authorities and autocratic governments to keep ahead of the curb of youth aspirations and project themselves as voices of moderation by emphasizing religious freedom, religious pluralism, and inclusive citizenship irrespective of religious belief.

The statements include the 2012 Statement on Basic Freedoms issued by Al Azhar, Islam’s Cairo-based oldest institution of Islamic learning that has long been swayed by Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial support, the 2016 Marrakech Declaration that called for the development of a jurisprudence of that enshrines the concept of inclusive citizenship, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed in the UAE in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

Referring to the 2012 Al Azhar statement, Ms. Al-Oumiri highlighted the fact that the statement was issued in the wake of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Saudi and UAE manoeuvres helped roll back the revolts’ achievements in all of the countries except for Tunisia.

The manoeuvres did not roll back what Ms. Al-Oumiri described as a “new awareness” among “all the components that participated in the protest movement, secularists, liberals, Christians, Muslims and others, (that) became aware of the fact that the bilateral polarization and exclusionary relations prevailing at that time were the main reason for the dispersion of forces capable of inducing positive change and extricating Arab society from its chronic crisis.” It is an awareness that expresses itself today among others in changing youth attitudes towards religiosity.

Ms. Al-Oumiri’s ‘new awareness’ is one factor that hampers autocratic efforts to shape a moderate form of Islam that serves the needs of social change and economic diversification without conceding democratic freedoms, projects autocrats as religious moderates as part of their nation branding and furthers their quest for religious soft power.

The ‘new awareness’ is borne out by research and opinion polls that consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity to turn its alliance with the WEA into a vehicle of change in both the Muslim world and the West is enhanced by the fact that religious reform in rival contenders for religious soft power like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt is top-down by decree or changes in common or civil rather than, more sustainably, bottom-up and anchored in religious law and jurisprudence.

The point was highlighted when Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious leaders took the first step towards reform of religious law and/or jurisprudence in 2019 by replacing the notion of the kafir or infidel with the concept of muwathinun or citizens to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.

Leaders of the group say that they intend to tackle other outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity is further both bolstered and complicated by the fact that autocratic Muslim rulers wittingly or unwittingly reinforce Islamophobic tendencies in multiple ways by their often brutal abuse of human rights at home and their support of policies in various parts of the globe that encourage negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

These policies include the blurring in countries like France and Austria of the lines between political Islam and piety as well as autocratic Muslim acquiescence, if not endorsement of the crackdown on Turkic Muslims and Islam in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Nahdlatul Ulama, despite its tangible adherence to principles of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, has yet to clearly distinguish itself from autocratic religious soft power rivals when it comes to its shared rejection of political Islam and identity politics. In other words, how it handles Islamophobia is likely to be a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulama as well as its alliance with the Evangelicals.

Making that distinction clear is likely to also enhance the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s ability to bring together elements of the centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based advocacy of human rights, democratic freedoms, and tolerance at a time that democracy is on the defence.

The linkage between the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s opportunity to serve as a bridge in both the religious and political domain is evident not only when it comes to countering religious supremacism but also far-right extremism. It is that linkage that adds a geopolitical dimension to the alliance’s potential.

Germany, where ultra-nationalist supremacists, despite recent electoral setbacks for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have infiltrated the security and armed forces, spotlights the importance of creating a religious and political centre that is driven as much by shared values as it is by interests.

Security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in recent years. The German defence ministry last year disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and memorabilia of the Nazi’s SS were found on the property of a sergeant major.

The geopolitical significance of developments in Germany is enhanced by the fact that some German ultra-nationalists and members of the far-right are believed to have links to Russia and /or far-right Russian nationalists.

In the latest German incident, prosecutors are investigating an official of Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, suspected of helping plan the assassination of a Chechen dissident as part of a campaign across Europe that targets critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov is widely viewed as an associate of President Vladimir Putin and maintains close ties to Middle Eastern autocrats.

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Defining moderate Islam: Muslims and Evangelicals forge an alliance

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A major Muslim and Evangelical organization joined forces this week to significantly advance hitherto state-backed ceremonial inter-faith dialogues that seldom go beyond platitudes and lofty statements.

This week’s launch at a Washington DC mosque of an inter-faith alliance and a book published by the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the Germany-based World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as well as the Center for Shared Civilizational Values constitutes an Evangelical endorsement of Humanitarian Islam.

It also amounts to a rare Muslim celebration of an Evangelical authority, WEA secretary general Archbishop Thomas Schirrmacher, who played a key role in building a relationship between the Evangelical group and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, one, if not the world’s largest Muslim movement.

“Dr. Schirrmacher’s decision to engage with the Humanitarian Islam movement may prove to be singularly consequential, and perhaps even historic, in its ramifications for the relationship between Christians and Muslims,” the editors of the book, Thomas K. Johnson and C. Holland Taylor said in their introduction.

Entitled ‘God Needs No Defense: Reimagining Muslim – Christian Relations in the 21st Century,’ the book is an anthology of essays written by preeminent Muslim and Christian scholars.

Based in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Institute for Humanitarian Islam was established by Nahdlatul Ulama to advance globally its humanitarian interpretation of the faith.

Nahdlatul Ulama sees the concept as an alternative to state-backed less developed and less tolerant and pluralistic notions of a moderate Islam as propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well expressions of political Islam represented by Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nahdlatul Ulama was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of Islam propagated for decades by Saudi Arabia until the rise in 2015 of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Indonesian group positions Humanitarian Islam as advocating genuine religious reform rather than self-serving social and rhetorical change advocated by rulers eager to implement long-overdue economic and social reform and project themselves as genuine religious moderates in a global battle for Muslim religious soft power and the soul of Islam.

The differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s Humanitarian Islam and the interpretations of the faith put forward by its conservative monarchical and republican Islamist soft power rivals are stark and raise fundamental questions about what constitutes genuine reform and how it can sustainably be achieved.

The differences pitch an independent civil society group, albeit one with close ties to the state, against states themselves.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s independence has allowed it to start a process of real change rooted in religious law and jurisprudence rather than a ruler’s decree or opinion issued by subservient clergymen.

The group challenges outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the kafir or infidel, the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

The group’s religious leaders took the first step in 2019 by replacing the term kafir with the word muwathinun or citizen to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law. “The word ‘kafir’ hurts some non-Muslims and is perceived to be theologically violent,” Nahdlatul Ulama cleric Abdul Moqsith Ghazali said at the time.

Independence also enabled Nahdlatul Ulama to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parts of which are exempted by its religious soft power rivals. That is not to say that liberals may not take issue with some of the interpretations of the declaration by Nahdlatul Ulama, a socially conservative movement.

The differences raise questions about Nahdlatul Ulama’s ability to succeed beyond the significant inroads that the group has made among political and religious elites in the United States, Europe, the Vatican, and parts of Africa and Asia.

The launch in Washington of the unprecedented alliance and the book is together with Nahdlatul Ulama’s association with the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), the world’s largest grouping of political parties, the most publicly visible evidence of its success among elites.

The alliance puts flesh on the skeleton of recent inter-faith dialogue by bringing together two of Islam and Christianity‘s major groups. Nahdlatul Ulama has tens of millions of followers while the World Evangelical Alliance says it represents 600 million Protestants and national evangelical alliances in 140 countries. The alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama casts a different light on Evangelicals as opposed to Evangelists, who particularly, in the United States have often come to be identified with Christian nationalism and Islamophobia.

The alliance aims “to prevent the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being,” the Institute for Humanitarian Islam and the  Nation’s Mosque in Washington, said in a press release.

With the creation of the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, the alliance also constitutes an effort to create a platform for a dialogue that moves beyond elites to nurture a grassroots movement in favour of religious reform across major religions that emphasizes inclusivity, pluralism, tolerance, and common values rather than exclusivism and supremacy fueled by identity politics. (In the spirit of transparency, this writer has been invited to be a member of the centre’s advisory board).

In doing so, the Center hopes to build on Nahdlatul Ulama’s substantial popular base in Indonesia, the WEA’s reach across the globe and a range of contacts and interactions with Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu groups and personalities.

The choice of Masjid Mohamed, the Nation’s Mosque, as the venue of the launch, suggests an outside-in strategy in trying to garner grassroots support in the Muslim world. Located in Washington’s historic African-American Shaw district, Masjid Muhammad is the first mosque in the United States built by descendants of slaves.

As such, the launch constitutes an outreach to a minority Muslim community in a Western democracy that despite upheaval in the United States as the country struggles to come to grips with its history of racism is likely to be more accessible and perhaps more open to Humanitarian Islam’s message than significant segments of the population in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan or the Middle East where many see what has long become a global faith through the lens of its Arab origins.

The alliance takes on added significance in a Western world that despite the electoral defeat of former US President Donald J. Trump and setbacks in Europe suffered by populists and ultra-nationalists has in recent years increasingly mainstreamed prejudice, bias, and authoritarianism.

“Rather than the world becoming more like the United States, as so many of us expected after the Cold War, the United States has become more like the rest of the world—in particular, its authoritarians,” noted foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook, debunking the projection of the US as a beacon of liberty and freedom.

In a twist of irony, Nahdlatul Ulama’s book publication coincided with a more narrowly focused and transactional Saudi-backed launch in Lebanon of a book, ‘The relationship between the Maronite patriarchate and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Written by Maronite Father Antoine Daw, Saudi support for the book and outreach to the Maronites was part of the kingdom’s effort to counter Iran’s regional influence and engage the Islamic republic in direct and indirect issue-oriented dialogues.

The launch in Bkirki, the Maronite patriarchate’s episcopal see, followed a call by Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Lebanon’s most senior Christian cleric, for a meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.

The patriarch urged Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s most powerful groups that played a key role in Iranian support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to move towards a position of neutrality in a bid to salvage Lebanon that is teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse.

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Sedition law: Hand-maiden of the Modi’s government

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Sedition laws have become a handmaid of India’s government under Narendra Modi to stifle dissent, incarcerate political opponents or persecute minorities. Shouting  a slogan, wall chalking, social post “azadi” (liberty), wearing a prayer cap, or offering prayer on adjoining roads when a mosque is overcrowded could attract sedition charges. Even interfaith marriages or cow related offences could be tried as sedition. The Hindu-monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh had directed his administration to try cow related offences under the National Security Act. Some states have passed love-jihad laws to prevent interfaith marriages. The over-ebullient Hindu extremists haul up even such people to the police stations who are happily married long before enactment of the law banning inter-faith marriages.

Apathy of India’s Supreme Court

Till recently, the Supreme Court had looked the other way in cases where there was blatant misapplication of the sedition law. Some verdicts smacked of communal bias. India being a secular country, the Supreme Court should have avoided dabbling into religious matters of different communities particularly of the largest minority, the Muslim. But, in vain. The Supreme Court pronounced that a mosque was not essential to Muslim way of worship. It allowed demolition of the ancient Babri Mosque. Thus it accepted the fictitious contention that Ram god was born at the site of the mosque millennia ago.

In marked contrast to its “Islamic” judgments, the Supreme Court had a benign attitude toward the Hindu religion. It admitted that a temple was necessary to the Hindu mode of worship. It allowed menstruating women to visit Sabarimala temple.

Supreme Court’s awakening

The plethora of sedition cases awakened the SC from its slumber. While quashing the sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua, the Supreme Court expressed ennui on slapping sedition charges to gag journalists. A  Bench of the Supreme Court led by Justice UU Lalit upheld “ the right of every journalist to criticise, even brutally, measures of the government with a view to improving or altering them through legal means”.The case against the journalist had been filed by the ruling BJP and was fervently defended by the Himachal Pradesh state government. The journalist was accused of “criticising the prime minister and the Union government for mishandling of the migrant crisis during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic”. The court drew attention to the 1962 Nath case judgment. That judgment took the sting out of the sedition cases filed under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. In the aforementioned case, the Supreme Court had ruled that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code can be used only when someone’s word actually leads to violence or generates an inclination for violence. The Section 124A describes sedition as punishable with imprisonment from three years to life, a fine or both.

Among journalists facing sedition cases is Siddique Kappan based in Kerala. He was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police while on his way to Hathras to cover a rape case last year and had been denied bail. Kappan and 21 other journalists covering the Hathras rape case were charged under Section 124A.

Similarly, several prominent journalists were charged under the sedition law for their coverage of the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day. The Supreme Court stayed the arrest of all of them. The Court observed that the Constitution has varying criteria for permissible restrictions on freedom of speech and expression and draws a boundary between serious and aggravated forms of public disorder which are calculated to endanger the security of the State and the relatively minor breaches of the peace of purely local significance.

 India’s Supreme Court had earlier observed in its 1950 judgment on Romesh Thapar versus State of Madras. “Only a higher degree of threat pertaining to endangerment of the foundations of the State could justify curtailment of the rights to freedom of speech and expression,” Thapar was editing a weekly journal called Cross Roads which was constantly at loggerheads with the Congress government of the day.

Disregarding the guidance in this judgment, the successive governments continued to mis-apply the sedition law.

Birth of the sedition law

When the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860, the sedition law was not included in it.  It took another 10 years for Section 124A to be included. Mahatma Gandhi was tried under this law in 1922. He told the court that the law had malafide intent. It was tailor-made to suppress the liberty of the citizen.

Concluding remark

India’s Law Commission issued a directive in 2018 that cautioned that a simple expression of a thought inconsistent with the government’s policy did not qualify as “sedition”. One has to be circumspect while invoking the sedition law. Yet, the Commission’s voice has proved to be a voice in the wilderness. Sedition law is a handy tool to stifle dissent. It is hoped that India’s Supreme Court will define the contour of the law more stringently to preclude its misuse by the fanatic Modi government.  

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