Faith and Existence: the Problem of History, Norm and Utopia in Islamic Thought

S. Parvez Manzoor

Posted Jul 27, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Modernity may quite simply be conceived as the cult of history. History in the modern scheme of things is not only a euphemism for existence, it is also, as the ultimate ground for being, the only reality and truth that the modern man confesses to. Modern philosophy thus reduces all truth to sense-perception, all being to becoming and all metaphysics to a phenomenology of pure temporality. Even for modern science, the cosmos or the universe is nothing but ‘the history of time’. By focusing on the experiential and the historical, however, modern man once aspired to attain ‘enlightenment’ and untie our humanity from its irrational – metaphysical and transcendent - moorings. The modern goal of a blissful humanity, so it was believed, could be realized through the pursuit of millennial politics; through cumulative progress and development was man to reach the Utopia of societal perfection. But all this was to happen on this side of history, here and now, and not in some nondescript realm of meta-history, in a kingdom beyond time.

Time however is the greatest mystery known to man and it could as easily frustrate Enlightenment reason’s bid to unmask it as a fully intelligible phenomenology as it earlier was able to thwart the mystics’ quest for uncovering its face. Little wonder that any conception of human reality as history, or of being as immanent temporality, proved as recalcitrant and intractable for Enlightenment reason as any system of transcendence ever was for the classical or religious intellect. By identifying being with time and man with history, modern reason merely cornered itself in the cul-de-sac of its own making; it inaugurated a regime that could not overcome its own antinomies or advance beyond the dead-ends of its own aporias. Little wonder that there’s little faith in its emancipatory power.

The moral and intellectual crisis of our times, the so-called problem of nihilism and relativity of values, thus stems from the insight that reason is unable to overcome the antinomy of norm and history. Or, that history does not contain norms for its own authentication; it cannot pass judgment on itself and hence create meaning. Only by the infusion of a telos does history, an aggregation of events, gets transformed into History, a narrative with a purpose and a goal. For the creation of historical meaning, then, we are dependent upon norms which themselves are not subject to the arbitration of history. The horizon of meaning, against which historical data are projected and evaluated, is meta-historical and lies outside the domain of historical reasoning.

History acquires order and structure, becomes meaningful as it were, only when it ‘comes to an end’ and hence may be observed from a vantage-point that is external to it. The present occupies therefore a privileged position in every historical inquiry and can never be expunged from historical consciousness. Indeed, the most perplexing character of history according to Max Bloch is that it not only makes it possible for us to ‘understand the present by means of the past’ but that it also constitutes an effort to ‘understand the past by means of the present.’ Given the fact that the historical imagination is always inhabited by both the past and the present, it is not surprising that Benedetto Croce once proclaimed that ‘all history is contemporary history.’ He may just as well have said: ‘All history is contemporary political debate.’ And so it is with the Islamist bid to ‘deconstruct’ the problem of authority in early Islam: it is as much part of the current preoccupation with an ideal ‘Islamic state’ as it has to do with the historical experience of the formative Muslim community.

Though the Western debate on the goal and meaning of history was conducted within an essentially secular milieu, it had its roots in the Judaeo-Christian reflections on salvation. In fact, the concept of meta-history - universal history as an orderly process or an intelligible structure - is commonly denoted by the quasi-religious term salvational history (Heilsgeschichte). The philosophical reflection on the purpose and goal of world history, it has been contended by Karl Loewith, merely represents a secularization of the Christian eschatological faith. However, despite the discrediting of all teleological schemes of universal history as ‘wishful thinking’, historians are not averse to positing a distinction between history as fact (Historie) and history as meaning (Geschichte). Similarly, it is customary to contrast sacred history, history as seen through the eyes of faith, with secular history, history ‘as it really happened’.

During the last hundred years, these distinctions have been employed with great skill for the elucidation of Judaeo-Christian scriptures. Today, the same exegetical method is being applied to the earliest Muslim texts and a radically revised version of formative Islamic history is being proffered by some skeptical Orientalists. (Indeed, these revisionist historians have started influencing Muslim thinking itself!) The argument presented here, however, is that the reconstruction of history ‘as it really happened’ is an impossible enterprise; that history as ‘fact’ cannot be consistently and meaningfully disentangled from history as ‘interpretation’. Or, as a modern scholar, Hayden White, expresses it: ‘All historical narratives contain an irreducible and inexpungeable elements of interpretation.’ It would be prudent, therefore, to adopt a cautious and circumspect attitude vis-à-vis revisionist history which has its own metaphysical foundations and epistemological prejudices. Its foundational temporalism may lead us to the morally barren wasteland of nihilism that we Muslims so rightfully dread.

Before an Islamic attitude towards history may be delineated, it is imperative that we bear in mind that Islam is a ‘religious’ faith grounded in the revelation of the Transcendent. The vision of Islam as ‘faith’, moreover, precedes the historical enterprise of the Muslim Community. In this sense, Islam is forever trans-existential and trans-historical. And yet, this trans-existential faith embodies existential imperatives that can only be carried out through the agency of a universal community. (Al-Qur’an: 2:143;  3:103; 3:110; 22:41) Islamic commitment entails therefore the alignment of the existential matrix of the human community with the revealed will of God. Indeed, notwithstanding the ineluctable transcendence of the Islamic faith, so strong is Islam’s bond with history that, as expressed by Marshall Hodgson, to have Islamic conscience is quite simply to assume ‘personal responsibility for the moral ordering of the natural world.’  Of course, the natural, i.e. created, world subsumes the world of man and history. (A word of caution, though: ‘Islam’s bond with history’ does not mean that Islam is coterminous with the historical enterprise of the Muslim community!)

The revelational directive for the moral ordering of the historical world, for the actualization of the unity of faith and existence, is as problematic and challenging for the Islamic intellect and will as any antinomy of norm and history ever faced by the modern man. And it elicits as heroic and creative a response from the Muslim community as any historical challenge faced by another civilization. It confers upon the Muslim believer and community a permanent feeling of inadequacy and failure, even if it also supplies them with the most cogent argument for striving ‘in the path of God.’ Concomitantly, notwithstanding the traditional insistence on the practicality and this-worldliness of the Islamic solutions, all Islamic models of historical order, all systems of societal and political thought, are incontrovertibly utopian.

The Unity of Norm and History
The Muslim enterprise in history (to be distinguished from the trans-historical and eternal truth of al-Islam) begins with the revelation of the Qur’an, which is also known as the ultimate criterion and norm (al-Furqan). As a revelation from God, the Norm intrudes upon history from beyond: through its ‘descent’ (nuzul), it enters the world of history but retains its externality. The antinomy of norm and history remains therefore hidden and does not make its debut until after the closing down of the revelation. As long as the revelation continued, as long as the Prophet was in-charge of the affairs of the Muslim community, history could be made to submit to the norm. It was not merely because the Muslim will was all-powerful or utterly indomitable, but because the norm itself could adjust to the historical circumstances. The norm was as ‘circumstantial’ as it was timeless and could directly intervene in the mundane affairs of the Community. The duality of norm and interpretation, of text and exegesis, did not exist. The authority of the one who enforced the norm, who interpreted the text (the Prophet) was as binding as that of the Norm itself. (Al-Qur’an: 4:80)

With the passing away of the Prophet, we enter the realm of history proper; it is now that the possibility of history defying the norm is first encountered by the Community. What transpired after the termination of the revelation may perhaps never become fully known. There’s no way any historical method, indigenous or foreign, traditional or revisionist, objective or exegetical, can reconstruct the formative history of Islam with absolute, or even with reasonable, certainty. This is not due to any ‘Islamic specificity’, but to the nature of history itself: both as the recollection of existence (historiography) and the actual existence (history) can never be made fully transparent and intelligible. The recalcitrance of early Islamic history is due, in my opinion, not so much to the fact that deliberate distortions or suppressions of historical facts have been carried out by later rulers or their apologists, but because the history of this period, an assortment of various happenings, has been made meaningful through a plurality of metahistories, through contradictory and conflicting narratives. History and theory, fact and meaning, are inextricably enmeshed in these records and the extant accounts, when they are not transparently sectarian and polemical, can only be characterized as ‘salvational histories’. It is within these pious salvational schemes that the Community’s response to the problem of authority and power, its vision of the primacy of the norm, is first articulated and it is out of these reflections that it may be further deciphered.

Out of the numerous ‘soteriologies’ (firaq najat) that emerged after the Great Fitna, only two have triumphed as ‘orthodoxies’, namely Sunnism and Shi`ism. Despite the fact that no formal confession or initiation ceremony separates them and they are in agreement on the two cardinal truths of Islam (Unity of God and Muhammad’s Prophecy), their relationship in history has been one of political antagonism and religious polemics. What distinguishes them is neither theological doctrines nor legal rites, but their irreconcilable notions of authority. Because of the discord on the issue of the rightful leadership of the Community, they have gradually crystallized into two separate religio-political communities. However, even if the disagreement between the two communities is presented as a clash over personalities, the deeper motives for this discord are ideological, indeed moral and metaphysical.

It is the over the dialectic of faith and existence that the two communities differ. Within the same Qur’anic and Prophetic paradigm, they have managed to work out different ‘soteriologies’: they may share a single ‘history’, but the ‘story’ they tell is not the same. It is not accidental then that the historical method is not able to deliver any unambiguous judgment on the ‘veracity’ of their accounts but merely perpetuates the sterile controversy. The two communities, after all, disagree not only with respect to the interpretation of the same event, they contest the actual historicity of numerous events as well. The difference, in other words, is as much over sources as over interpretations. Most of all, however, the inability of the historical method to arbitrate is attributable to the fact that what earlier Muslim sources present are not ‘histories’ but ‘metahistories’, not neutral accounts of existential contingencies but the unfolding of a sacred community’s path towards self-enlightenment and salvation. Given this impasse, it would perhaps be fruitful to look at these salvational histories from a phenomenological and structuralist point of view. Instead of the personalities, we must concentrate on the issues that they (are made to) convey. Accepting these meta-histories as they are, we must, so to speak, view them against themselves and elicit their meaning. Only such a hermeneutical approach can make them relevant to our own debate.

At the moment of full maturity, Sunnism presents a theory of historical khilafa and Shi’ism that of a trans-historical imama. Sunnism, accepts, indeed sacralizes, earlier history, while Shi’ism rejects, indeed de-legitimizes, it. The Sunni model of ideal government, the Righteous Caliphate, (al-Khilafa al-Rashida) appears, to a superficial observer, as a mere apotheosis of history. It is based upon a reading of early Islamic history as the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Following this logic, many have been tempted to conclude that the Sunni theory does not make any distinction between authority and power, between constitutional and unconstitutional force. In cruder polemics, Sunnism, regarded as the ‘King’s party’, is even accused of depleting Islamic commitment of every categorical imperative: its pursuit of the ‘existential imperative’ ultimately leads it to the moral the cul-de-sac of ‘might is right’. A similar, equally shallow, reading of Shi’ism makes it totally impervious to the logic of this world; an unforgiving, unreasoning and fanatical faith that attaches no value to human existence and which is inherently and inexorably opposed to any conception of ‘common humanity’ and ‘human rights’. Shi’ite piety, accordingly, is nothing but a destructive rage that lacks the power of redemption.

It is my contention that such a tendentious reading of the self-authenticating meta-narratives of the two communities, as a crude this-worldly Sunni Caliphate and an equally crude other-worldly Shi’i Imamate, is patently false. Both these doctrines, Khilafa and Imama are utopian ‘anti-theories’ which propose no standards of politics or governance but which actually de-legitimize all political and secular claims to authority! In fact, when viewed hermeneutically, the Sunni theory of the Righteous Caliphate is as idealistic, utopian and ‘anti-establishment’ as anything presented by Shi’ism. Despite its reputation as being a ‘historical’ theory, it is a theory about norms, a self-legitimating narrative that allows a sacred community to make its pact with history without renouncing its ideals. Indeed, the same is true of Shi’ism which, despite the obvious ‘failure’ of its historical project, the securing of caliphal power for the house of `Ali, not only managed to keep its faith in the Divine scheme of things intact, but which also adopted the ways of this world with remarkable ease. Quite like Sunnism, Shi’ism both founded empires and persecuted ‘heretics’.

The locus of authority in Sunnism is the Umma: neither the Caliph, nor the Imam; nor indeed any historical personage(s) who may have filled this role or assumed this office. The Caliph, even a righteous one, derives his authority and legitimacy from the Community, and not the reverse, as is the case with Shi`ism. The quality of `Isma (protection against sin), which is one of essential (takwini) attributes of the Sh`ite Imam, is also ascribed to the Umma. Even semantically and exegetically, the two concepts, umma and imam, are cognate and the juridical discourse, Sunni as well as Shi`i, preserves this unity: Imam is quite simply the leader of the community (umma). There is also an unmistakable affinity between the inerrancy of the consensus (Ijma`) in Sunnism and the infallibility of the Imam (`Isma) in Shi`ism. While there is agreement between the two that the link between God and man is the Law (Shari`a), the sunni caliph may not, in contradistinction to the Shi`i imam, claim any exclusive right to interpret the Law. The privilege of elaborating the doctrine, magisterium in Christian terminology, is reserved for the doctors of the law (`ulama’, fuqaha’). In the final analysis, then, the Sunni theory of khilafa is a theory of the sacred law. By investing the highest authority in a living, historical umma, Sunnism transforms ‘revelation’ from a historical event into an ongoing historical process: salvation is not merely receiving the sacrament of the revelation, it is also participation in the sacred mission of the Paradigmatic Community (Ahl al-Sunna wa’l Jama`a). The Sunni concept of umma denotes, in short, more than a historical theopolity. Having absorbed the vocabulary of both metaphysics and theology, it has been transformed into the sacral and mystical body-Islamic.

Perhaps because of its legitimist origins, the Shi`i conception of authority is much more transparent and unambiguous. Imama is essentially a matter of genealogy, the ontological extension of the Prophetic charisma, as it were. The Shi`i Imam represents divinely sanctioned sovereignty, he is the legatee of the Prophet (Wasi), protected against sin (ma`sum), the sole possessor of gnosis and the ultimate exegete of the Divine Scripture (Sahib al-Kitab). He is the supreme leader and the spiritual guide of the Muslim community, not because of any worldly power, any function of governance that he may or may not exercise, but because of his personal excellence. His legitimacy, in other words, is not derived from the consensus of the community, but, on the contrary, it is the community which is obliged to obey him - or go to perdition. The function of the Shi`ite imamate, there can be no mistaking, is the prolongation of the Prophecy: Imam is the true heir to the office of the Prophet. Unlike the Sunni Caliph, who is merely a ‘temporal’ ruler, the authority of the Imam is both spiritual and temporal. Imama, in sum, is a theocratic doctrine.

Besides these two orthodox doctrines, there have been in early Islam other, sectarian, conceptions of authority which today are significant only for their historical interest. Among these, the one that commands the most attention stems from the Kharijites. Though the sect itself has almost become extinct in actual history, many of their teaching and maxims have been absorbed by other communities, especially Sunnism. Without prejudice, the Kharijite position may be described as that of extreme egalitarianism, fanatical piety and an anarchical disposition towards charismatic order. If the Shi`ite conception of authority unfolds into a theocratic polity under a charismatic leader, the Kharijite stance leads to the dissemination of charisma within a leaderless community. The Sunni position is, of course, in between: The state or the theopolity is neither under the absolute rule of a charismatic leader, nor is it at the mercy of an unruly, albeit charismatic, community.

Against the backdrop of these three paradigmatic schemes, viz. ‘charismatic theocracy’ (Shi`ism), ‘egalitarian anarchy’  (Kharijism) and ‘routinized nomocracy’ (Sunnism), we may now adduce what each theory claims, and what it does not claim. It would, for instance, be totally inappropriate to construe them as ‘political theories’. The religio-political unity of the Islamic vision militates against the emergence of any autonomous theory of politics in the proper sense of the term. The state - political community - in Islamic thought is always a faith community, a theo-polity under a divine imperative rather than a secular polity that is a norm unto itself. Or, the best way to describe it would be as a ‘body-Islamic’ rather than a ‘body-politic’. Nor may these theories, as mentioned earlier, be regarded as impartial histories. If anything, these are religious doctrines describing the constitution of the ideal faith community, the community which seek ‘salvation’ in the light of the Qur’anic revelation (al-Firqa al-Najiya).

By claiming the reign of the first four caliphs as the golden age of Islam, Sunnism announces itself to be the Rightly-Guided Community. Similarly, the Shi`ite insistence on the `isma of the imams is tantamount to vindicating itself as the ‘sinless community’, the community which, by refusing allegiance to the Sunni caliphs, has escaped the grave sin of apostasy. In term of their immediate effects, however, these ‘salvational histories’ annunciate norms that are legally binding. In its method and scope, for instance, the so-called historical report (khabar) differs little from legal testimony (shahada) and may be employed to establish a juridical precedent. Ultimately, then, Khilafa and Imama are legal theories which establish the authority of the Sunni or the Shi`i jurisconsult (faqih). Apart from the indisputable authority of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunnah, and the more contested one of the paradigmatic history (khilafa and imama), it is the juristic method which has succeeded in establishing itself in history as the embodiment of Islamic reason. It is an authority which overarches the sectarian Shi`i-Sunni divide and confers upon the Islamic civilization its unmistakable legalist character.

Whatever its early vicissitudes, Shi`ism has evolved in history as the Messianic doctrine par excellence of Islam.. From a legitimist party, it has transformed itself into a ‘piety of protest’ which acts as the conscience of the Prophet’s community. Indeed, it also legitimizes its opposition to the Sunni order in terms of a future Utopia, the millennial rule of the Awaited Imam. While the Sunni vision of a normative past assures a routinized order and a stable community, Shi`i millennianism is radically revolutionary and destabilizing. Implicit in its doctrine of Intizar, and the cause of much Shi`i-Sunni tension, is the claim that not only can the established order be overturned at any time, but also that the Law itself may be abolished by the Mahdi. The social contract which in Sunnism is coterminous with the Prophetic Sunna, in other words, can be dissolved by a new order.

The utopian vision of Sunnism, in contrast, remains hidden under, what appears to a casual observer, as an apology of certain historical regimes, that of the Prophet and of his righteous lieutenants. However, what is less commonly realized is that the function of this apology is the de-legitimation of power politics rather than an apotheosis of governance. For the caliphate presents neither a theory of legitimacy nor a model of the state but a religious Utopia, an ideal realm in which every aspect of life is regulated by the sacred Law, in which a human community totally submits to the imperatives of the divine will. Utopia, as observed acutely by Gadamer, ‘is a form of suggestiveness from afar. It is not primarily a project of action but a critique of the present.’ Sunnism, as an attachment to the unrealizable ideal of the Prophet’s and his lieutenant’s regime in Medina, incarnates such a Utopia.

Perhaps the most insightful testimony to the utopian nature of the caliphate comes from the solitary genius of Ibn Khaldun. The caliphate represents an exceptional moment, a theocracy free from the constraints of the laws of history. Indeed, as Gibb expounds it, ‘since mankind will not follow the shari`a it is condemned to an empty and unending cycle of rise and fall, conditioned by the “natural” and inevitable consequences of the predominance of its animal instincts.” The natural state of man is not khilafa but mulk, not rechtstaat but machtstaat. Little wonder that despite its undeniable ‘success’ in the realm of history, the Mu`awiya’s mulk, his ‘secular’ power-polity, is not considered part of the righteous caliphate of Sunnism.

Returning to our own debate, can a de-construction, indeed ‘de-legitimation’, of these utopian and meta-historical doctrine accomplish the radicalization of Islamic thought that we so desperately need in our times, or is it bound to be a Quixotic charge devoid of meaning and purpose? Or, should we not eschew controversy over secondary texts (khilafa and imama) and concentrate instead on the supreme intellectual effort of elaborating the ethical and moral worldview of the Qur’an? Not only has much of the vast corpus of fiqh become irrelevant in our times, the traditional enterprise of reading of the Qur’anic text legalistically itself needs an earnest re-examination. Can the received notion of the unity of din and dawla be upheld in the face a globalized human community? Does the traditional understanding of the Umma as the incarnation of the transcendent truth of Islam pose a challenge to the delineation of a genuinely Islamic vision of a common humanity? Alternatively, how may we Muslims share power with those with whom we cannot pray, with whom we do not share a sacrament? Abandoning the sterile sectarian debate, can we impart a fresh vision to Adam’s khilafa, to the mandate of Divine deputyship that belongs to the whole humanity? Can such a moral vision of mankind’s collective rights and responsibilities be the focal point of our reflection on the human situation and on the malaise of humanity in our times? Let us not forget however that in order to debate these questions, we need a vision of history and politics that rises above our sectarian loyalties and transcends our separate utopias. Whatever the promise and pitfalls of our legacy, the search for ‘the best community’ must go on.

  S Parvez Manzoor