TRASCENDENCE DENIED

Faith and the Politics of Immediate Return

 

    Modernity, claims one of the most perceptive and spiritually sensitive political philosophers of our century, Eric Voegelin, is a gnostic project. By disassociating the transcendent order of the City of God from the temporal one of the City of man, Augustinian Christianity had managed to de-divinize the political realm. The modern route back to the 're-divinization' of temporal order, to the recovery of the 'redeeming' function of politics, Voegelin opines, does not pass through a revival of the pagan ethos but through 'heretical' Christianity. More precisely, it is through Gnostic speculations about the burden of man, left alone in the universe by the absent God (deus absconditus) to achieve salvation for himself and for nature, that modernity discovers its own calling as the creation of an immanent Utopia. Little wonder that the secular realm gets sacralized in modernity and the Here-now abolishes the Here-after.

    The paramount traits of modernist consciousness, renunciation of transcendence and eternity and espousal of immanence and temporality, then, emanate from a fallacious and spurious theology. It is thus legitimate on the part of a sensitive religious thinker (Emil Fackenheim) to mourn that 'the modern world has lost Transcendence beyond all possible recovery.' This insight is further buttressd by the following argument: 'The Greeks contemplated nature and sought first causes. The modern scientist seeks mere uniformities, and his purpose with nature is not the contemplation of it but rather control over it. But who will find - or seek - Transcendence in what he controls? Some may still find Transcendence in nature where it is uncontrollable and certainly as yet uncontrolled. Yet such is even now the effect of technology on contemporary culture that henceforth any such recourse to nature is destined to be judged not as an access to Transcendence, but rather as a flight from immanence.' The picture is no different for consciousness within than for nature without. Not even the soul, within which mystics have always found Transcendence, offers any retreat today. For 'the pale cast of psychological and sociological thought has reduced what was once "Reality" to a mere feeling itself.' (E. Fackenheim: "Transcendence in Contemporary Culture: Philosophical Reflections and a Jewish Testimony", in H. W. Richardson & D. R. Cutler (ed): Transcendence. Bacon Press, Boston, 1969. p 143).

    Transcendence may be the sine qua non of religious faith and its loss may genuinely cause anguish and pain in the believing heart, there is, nevertheless, an authentic characteristic of Prophetic religions which is always susceptible to a misreading, as it were, of the text of Transcendence. Indeed, it is a trait that facilitates, if not actually fosters, a mistaking of immanence for transcendence. That believers have always recognized this 'con-fusion' (shirk) as the ultimate sin, as the ultimate offence against God, however, merely alerts us to the fact that idolatry always remains a genuine possibility within the Prophetic traditions. And yet, it remains undisputable that the idolatrous vision too proceeds from the fact, dutifully noted even by those who lament the loss of transcendence in our times, that unlike Eastern religions which find avenues to transcendence in nature contemplation or in mysticism, Prophetic faiths discover transcendence in history. From the perception of transcendence in history to a claim about history as transcendence is just a short step. However it is a step which transforms the trans-historic End (Akhira) of religious imagination into an immanent Utopia of political activism. With this metaphysical transition, we are already at the threshold of modernity. For religious activists who envision the sacred order of faith as an immanent Utopia, (who, in the Islamic context, would prolong the Prophecy and routinize transcendence!) are none other than the children of modernity. Religious fundamentalism, to use a much maligned but unavoidable term, is a gnostic heresy.

 

Works Discussed in the Essay:


Fundamentalisms Observed. (The Fundamentalism Project. Vol. I). Ed by Martin E. Marty & R. Scott Appleby.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1991. (Paperback Re-print, 1994). Pp 872. ISBN 0-226-50878-1.  

Fundamentalisms and Society. Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education. (The Fundamentalism Project. Vol. II). Ed by Martin E. Marty & R. Scott Appleby.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1993. Pp 592. ISBN 0-226-50880-3.  

Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Politics, Economics, and Militance. (The Fundamentalism Project. Vol. III). Ed by Martin E. Marty & R. Scott Appleby.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1993. Pp 665. ISBN 0-226-50883-8.  

Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements. (The Fundamentalism Project. Vol. III). Ed by Martin E. Marty & R. Scott Appleby.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1994. Pp 852. ISBN 0-226-50885-4.

 

    The discourse on 'fundamentalism' has become the most polemical, nay hysterical, discourse of our times. Its pivotal concept, 'fundamentalism', which is more useful if construed as a problem of social analysis than as a form of religious faith and activism, cannot be evoked without stirring intense emotions or conjuring apocalyptic visions. An infamous example of this hysteria, albeit a journalistic one, comes from the pen of Amos Perlmutter who wrote on January 22, 1992 in the Washington Post: 'Islamic fundamentalism of the Sunni or Shia (sic!) variety in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, the Maghreb and also Algeria is not merely resistant to democracy but wholly contemptuous of and hostile to the entire democratic political culture... [It] is an aggressive revolutionary movement as militant and as violent as the Bolshevik, Fascist, and the Nazi movements of the past.' Equally telling was the call to Jihad that emanated from the same source: 'The West's next Crusade: Fighting Fundamentalist Islamic Rule.' (David Ignatius: Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 6-22 March, 1992)

Now that the scholars have joined the debate and shifted its strategic locus from the journalist's newsroom to the academic's precinct, the hysteria is gone but the apocalyptic mood persists. Without doubt, the most imposing monument of the scholarly labour, if not always the most dazzling display of the scholarly vision, is to be found in the encyclopeadic work that is the outcome of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' patronage of 'the Fundamentalist Project'. It is a mammoth opus that comprises 4 bulky volumes, extends over 3000 pages, is written by an army of experts, and has been judiciously edited by a theologian (Marty) and a historian (Appelby). Gigantic in format, monstrous in comprehensiveness and immaculate in its scholarly complexion, the work affords a glimpse of the awesome material and intellectual resources of the American academia. Whatever its shortcomings, this ambitious and colossal undertaking is sure to daunt and challenge every kind of reader, the erudite as much as the dilettante.

    The initial volume, Fundamentalism Observed, is just what its title proclaims: an overview of the religio-political landscape of 'fundamentalism' and an inventory of the movements whose idealogies may be fitted into this category. It discusses the Protestant and Roman Catholic (North America), Protestant (Latin America), Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Confucian and the Japanese brands of fundamentalisms! The spotlight on Islamic movements is provided by, John O. Voll ('Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World: Egypt and the Sudan'); Abdulaziz Sachedina ('Activist Shi`ism in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon); Mumtaz Ahmad ('Islamic Fundamentalism in South Asia: The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat'); and Manning Nash ('Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia and Indonesia'). The Islamic Maghrib in general, and Algeria in particular, are missing! Though all the writers have provided competent scholarly surveys, the perspective is historical, at times supplemented by sociological analysis, that in efforts like these is de rigueur. The more meaningful and disturbing questions about the interface of faith and existence do not fall within the scholarly purview.

    Unlike the ad hoc conception of the first effort, the two succeeding volumes on Fundamentalisms and Society and Fundamentalisms and the State that appeared simultaneously in 1993, are more closely-knit. They are mainly theoretical in nature and, hence, deal more with the history of religious ideas than with the history of political deeds. Fundamentalists' impact on society is gauged terms of their intellectual efforts to elaborate a worldview which could both be faithful to the sacred cosmology of 'ancient' scriptures and serve a vehicle for the promotion of 'modern' science. The fundamentalist criticism of modern science, directed at its obduracy to separate 'facts' from 'values', knowledge from ethics, is lightly brushed aside, but instead of any counter-argument, many predictions about the future failure of the fundamentalist option are generously proffered (Bassam Tibi). Further, the notion of 'rationality' with which Tibi whips the fundamentalist bogey-man is patently out of date and defunct. Intellectual honesty would demand that some discussion of the postmodern deconstruction and demolition of the text of Rationality, of which even the fundamentalist is fully aware, be included in the analysis. In short, Tibi's rebuttal of the Muslim criticism of western science, which is ethico-epistemological in stance and which does not exhaust itself in espousing the cause of creationism, smacks more of facile polemics than of an honest debate. The other two topics treated in the volume, family and education, also afford ample scope for secularist polemics against antisecular fundamentalists.

    Fundamentalisms and the State, the third volume of this Project, preoccupies itself with the heart of fundamental politics and faces the issues of legal conflict, economic policies, and the fundamentalist sanctioning of violence for achieving political goals. As, according to both modern theory and practice, the state alone possesses the right to use force, fundamentalists are inevitably drawn into challenging the state they inhabit, irrespective of whether the state is run by their coreligionsts or not. Analytical studies dealing with Christian fundamentalists in the United States and Northern Ireland; Muslim activists in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkey; Jewish extremists in Israel; and Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist fundamentalists in South Asia aim to expose the nature of the fundamentalist violence. Other scholars concentrate on the most spectacular examples of fundamentalist militancy: the successful war of resistance in Afghanistan; the calculus of Jihad by the Hizbullah; Buddhism, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka, Religious Violence by Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, etc. One conclusion to be drawn is that even when they cherish notions of separate existence, fundamentalists willy-nilly participate in a common discourse about development, modernization, political structures and economic planning. In short, the political discourse forces upon the religious fundamentalist to adopt an economic worldview.

    Accounting for Fundamentalism continues this project by examining the way fundamentalist groups, movements or organizations cope with the 'forces of history'; how they accommodate change, modify their ideologies, engage with outside forces, grow in strength or fade out in oblivion. Some of the intriguing questions that arise in this regard and which some contributors attempt to answer, are: Do fundamentalist movements forever remain oppositional, exclusivist, antisecular, or do they find some way of effectively participating in political processes?; Is it possible for a fundamentalist movement to be sustained over a long period of time after the death of its charismatic leader?; How does participation in the political process 'corrupt' fundamentalist ideology? The fifth, and presumably the final, volume of the series Fundamentalisms Compared is yet to be published. In it, the editors and the contributors are expected to take a synoptic view of the previous 'scholarly and journalistic (!) research' and come up with 'an explanatory model of global, antisecular, religious resurgence.' Hence, though a Muslim critic's final appreciation and appraisal of the Project must await the publication of the last volume, some initial reaction may be offered here below.

    To start with, it is neither unduly harsh nor merely paradoxical to claim that the main flaw of this voluminous opus is its colossal format. In its ambition to be as comprehensive as possible, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has certainly succeeded in producing a mammoth; but it is a mammoth without teeth. The richness of the empirical vision and historical analysis displayed in these volumes is never redeemed by any theoretical insights. History and theory run their parallel courses and the problem of 'meaning' remains as nagging as ever. The comprehensiveness of the project, then, cannot produce any semblance of a unity, or overcome the semantic uncertainty of the key terms that informs the entire discourse. Or, as the veteran historian, William H. McNeill, who appears to have been especially commissioned to produce a synoptic view from the vantage-point of world-history, is also fully cognizant:

    'Readers [of these volumes] may well wonder whether the essays deal with a general phenomenon of the contemporary world that runs across cultural, religious, and ethnic lines or whether each religious group dealt with in the separate chapters is unique to itself. Our use of a single term "fundamentalism" to describe them all obviously implies some sort of commonality. Yet the meaning of this originally Protestant term alters drastically when applied to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist movements and groups; even within the Christian community it is often difficult to say who is or is not a fundamentalist: On the surface of things, surely, different heritages operating in different circumstances reduces the common denominator among all the groups described in these pages to little more than high emotional commitment to a programme for reform which draws its inspiration from religious faith rather than from secular this-worldly hopes.' (vol. III. p 558)

    Despite his awareness that the term 'fundamentalism' does not denote any universal traits of religious faith, or, more precisely, of mankind's numerous religious traditions, McNeill's presents a historical scheme in which he makes 'fundamentalism' almost synonymous with 'religion' itself! 'Fundamentalisms' for him are quite simply 'contemporary exemplars of a tradition of religious protest'; or, they represent social phenomena that belong to some recurrent pattern of 'religiously inspired reform movements'! Needless to say, everyone from Biblical Prophets to Luther, from the Prophet of Islam to Khomeini, from Buddhists and Hindus to Confucians, and everyone else of any persuasion and conviction can now be bracketed with the 'fundamentalists'! Hence, McNeill concludes that 'since about 700 B.C.E., in urban and civilized societies, where inequitable social relations were always present to offend tender conscience, energetic groups of reformers have persistently and perpetually sought to remake the world along juster, religiously sanctioned lines. If so, it is obvious that the [the current fundamentalist] movements ...... are not unusual and may not signify any notable departure from the normal confusion and controversy of civilized existence.' (p 561)

    Apart from the fact the McNeill's thesis about fundamentalism being 'a normal part of the cacaphony that arises from the diversity of civilized societies' puts a big question mark on the need and legitimacy of the Academy's project, it does nothing more than reiterate the peculiarly anti-religious prejudices of the modern man. Indeed, it reduces every religious experience to sensory phenomena and every religious movement to social factors. It does not, cannot, entertain even the possibility of a super-sensory Reality or of Transcendence in human history. In short, McNeill does not enter into a dialogue with the religious self, and by so doing, renders himself incapable of understanding the fundamentalist ethos. McNeill's other, sociological, insights about population pressure, the disenchantment of peasants living in urban environments, or that the general level of discontent in our world is on the increase, are, frankly speaking, truisms that add nothing to our understanding of the phenomenon of religious resurgence. The sociological theory also falters on the ground that highly prosperous sections of the Western world as well as the very destitute Third world, societies that are sociologically worlds apart, seem to be in the throes of fundamentalism.

    McNeill's sociological analysis, however, also leads to the realization that not only have the iniquities of the world increased in our age, but also that 'the appeal of secular, rationalistic doctrine is limited mainly to privileged and relatively comfortable persons'. He is also apprehensive that 'a rather limp and individualistic liberalism' cannot compete with the vitality and vigour of a religious revival which provides a sense of community and belonging to the world's underprivileged and the disenfranchised. The nature of this discontent with
secularism, modernity and rationality, which is as much a part of the affluent suburbia of the 'First world' as it is widespread in the slums and shanty towns of the Third world, however, is not further elaborated. And yet, the confident prediction is that
'fundamentalism' will remain marginal to the main currents of history: 'The mere fact that the majority of human beings are in social situations that make membership in religious communities attractive does not mean that any of these movements will
actually be able to appeal to the hundred and millions of souls in need of help and comfort. Nor does it mean that angry secular ideologies may not overtake religious programmes of action. Moreover, religion itself may become angry and make group conflicts more irreconcilable than they would be otherwise.' (p 573)

     The editors of the series, it would appear, are fully appreciative, indeed apprehensive, of the conceptual problems that beset this project. They readily concede that the two 'code
words', modern and religion, that pervade this discourse, elude precise definitions. The same holds true for the pivotal term fundamentalism. To this, we may also add that 'secularity' and 'religion', or their derivatives, only present us with false contradictions. Or, if we take into account the specificity of the Islamic vision, we'll have to grant that Islam is not opposed to secularity. Secularism, like any darling child, has many names. In contemporary literature it is presented either (humbly), as a rejection of ecclesiastical authority, a model of pluralism, a theory of society, a doctrine of governance, or
(augustly), as a philosophy of history, a creed of atheism, an epistemology of humanism, or (even more grandiosely), as the metaphysics of immanence that corresponds to the ultimate scheme of things. Needless to say that not every expression of the secularist, this-worldly, conscience and piety is antithetical or inimical to Islam. It can approve and accommodate most of the humbler claims of secularism. What it cannot accept is its
metaphysical and theological dogmas; its absolute immanentism and atheism, which render it more of a 'salvational doctrine' than a sociological theory. No work on 'fundamentalism', this one included, recognizes, let alone discusses, the dogmatic and
metaphysical claims of secularism. Should the current debate on fundamentalism force the Muslim thinker to have a closer look at the absolutist doctrine of secularism itself, and to de-sacralize it as it were, Muslim contribution to the debate would have been
adequately made.

     The most serious objection that may be raised against this work is that it encourages, if not enthusiastically indulges in, reckless theorization. In its eagerness to produce 'an
explanatory model of global, antisecular, religious resurgence', it treats a host of disparate, often mutually hostile, movements whose only common feature is extremism, as a confederacy of faith or as an ideological brotherhood. Fundamentalism is capitalized
and presented as the 'grand paradigm of history', the antithesis of modernity which is bent upon destroying the secular order of the day. The sociological theory of Fundamentalism as a universal revolt against modernity, however, is as specious as the journalist's apocalyptic vision of the 'Islamic Threat'! There are no such conspiracies afoot. Secondly, it is in the nature of the scholarly discourse to shun the more serious and disturbing
questions of meanings and values. Little wonder that none of the contributors to these volumes ever question the validity of a worldview, that of secular modernity, which is sustained by the calculus of instrumental rationality and which renders man a mere
citizen. No one asks, for instance: how come that despite the emphatic universalism of the prevailing ideologies of liberalism and humanism, only a very tiny minority of mankind is the
beneficiary of all the fruits of progress?

     To say this, however, is not to absolve the 'fundamentalists' of their share of the blame for the woes of humanity today. Many of the strictures against their theory and praxis that have come both from secularists and traditional religionists are perfectly justified. Their obscurantist, authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes, their contempt for civil liberties and dread for human rights, their xenophobia and misogynism can have no defenders from within the fold of believers. Nor can the Muslim condone the gnostic consciousness
of fundamentalism which barters the bliss of the Hereafter for an immanent political salvation. It is worth recalling that the heresy of gnosticism entered the world of Islam in the form of Batiniyya and the Isama'iliyya and played havoc with the body-Islamic for a long time. They same drama is being replayed in our times, except that the victims now are our own societies. However, the most unpardonable error of these extremists is that by monopolizing the interpretation, they attempt a closure of the Sacred text itself, and hence deplete it of further meaning. A sensitive and religiously motivated criticism of this modern form of Batiniyya should therefore at the top of the Muslim thinker's agenda.

     Between the two models of fundamentalism projected in these volumes, a vacuous and nondescript one which regards it as a recurrent form of religious protest (or a sinister 'Muslim' design for the mastery of the world!) and an alarmist one which sees it as a grand alliance for the challenge of modernity, the Muslim may find his own bearing. He may not indict its political activism but its Messianic passion; not its moral indignation but its xenophobia, not its social conscience but its misogynistic obsession, not its scripturalism but its closure of the Text. Further, the fundamentalist's dread and despite of the Other
borders on the pathological, whilst Muslim conscience craves a universal community. Islam is a religion of solidarity and peace, not of sectarianism and strife. If Muslims intend to act, in accordance with the Qur'anic calling, as the moral conscience of mankind, they'll have to rid themselves of these 'gnostic' traits.

Whatever the discontents of their elitist and aggressively secular worldview, these volumes display the best of assiduous scholarship. They offer a scholarly vision that is concrete,
factual, and humane; a vision which relativizes various moral options, but which also liquidates absolute otherness and depreciates the jingoist rhetoric of journalists. As such, this monumental opus with its immense erudition and research will remain indispensable for scholars and students for a long time to come.
 

Stockholm                                                                         S Parvez Manzoor