Reason and Superstition: When will we move on from the past?
By Farish A. Noor
Once again there is talk of all manner of hocus-pocus skulduggery in the corridors of power in Malaysia, and once again Malaysia’s image has been tainted by the bugbear of the past. It was not too long ago that a government agency even contemplated the thought of formally recognising witchcraft as a form of ‘alternative therapy’. And to add insult to our injuries it was revealed not too long ago that a magic spell was placed under the table of the former Prime Minister no less.
Is this a symptom of the uneven development that has come to be the norm in so many postcolonial societies? What is the point, pray tell, of having the tallest building in the world when the people working in it believe in ghosts, poltergeists and vampires? Or worse still, would consider hiring some of these spooky characters to do their dirty political work?
The most embarrassing thing of all is that these revelations are coming from and about Malaysia, a country which in the eyes of many other developing nations is seen as a model to be emulated. In the words of a Bangladeshi analyst colleague of mine: “One certainly expects more from a country like Malaysia, simply because Malaysia occupies such a high position in the eyes of so many other countries.” But like many analysts who have spent more than an hour studying the Byzantine and at time bizarre politics of the country, he too is left to wonder what the hype is all about.
Which brings us back to the debate between reason and superstition that has been a staple of Muslim debates going back for centuries…
It is odd, to say the least, that in many of the developing Muslim societies of the world today we see the perennial bugbear of primordial superstition rearing its ugly head time and again. Yet wasn’t the Muslim world known at one time as the fountainhead of reason and rationality?
I can only look back to the works of thinkers and social scientists like Ibn Khaldun, who in his pioneering work on history the Muqadimmah paved the way for what would later be known as the discipline of political sociology.
Khaldun’s account of the rise and fall of civilisations and societies deserves to be read time and again for his manifold insights into the nature of human society and how human beings come together to form stable, sedentary civilisations. True, one may fault him for his circular understanding of history that reads a tad too much like an lesson in structural-functionalism 101. But the rare genius of Khaldun was his emphasis on human beings and human agency as the primary factor that shapes and determines the development of nations and civilisations alike.
Khaldun wrote his work at a time when people assumed that history was shaped by pre-determined fate and other factors that were supernatural and metaphysical. The rise and fall of nations was determined by the will of God or the predestiny of peoples, it was assumed. Not so, argued Khaldun, who placed human agency at the centre of the stage of history and who argued that human agency was the factor that determined the fate of nations.
This emphasis on human agency placed reason and rationality at the forefront of things, and ensured that history could be read as a progression of rational choices, driven by interests and material factors alone. There was no ‘ghost in the machine’ that decided when the value of currencies would collapse, or when diplomatic relations could be formed or broken. Nor were there any supernatural factors that determined which nations would prosper and which would flounder in the march of time. No, in the end it was human reason that would be the navigator that would bring (or fail to bring) a nation to its appointed destiny.
For his efforts, Khaldun was faulted by some (til today) as that horrible materialist who placed materialism and human agency above and before divine will and the power of prophesy. Until today there are conservative Ulama who continue to label him a dangerous materialist and secularist to boot.
But Khaldun’s work and ideas helped to lay the foundations for what would later come to be known as political sociology, and his analysis of the mentality of the colonised would shape the writings of later generations of modern thinkers like Franz Fanon, directly or indirectly.
How would a rational social scientist like Khaldun look at the phenomenon of witchcraft in countries like Malaysia today, one wonders? Reason has gone on holiday while the comedy writes itself. In a nation that is still trying to understand the meaning of democracy, political leaders openly declare to their party members that witchdoctors should not be used in election campaigns. Khaldun might see this as an example of what he called the ‘latter stage’ of civilisational development, where an excess of wealth and a life of ease have basically softened and blunted the intellect of the masses, and where crass superstition and folk belief have become popularised in the absence of rigorous intellectualism (which requires some degree of hardship and struggle to thrive and prosper, out of necessity.)
Whatever the case, it would seem as if Khaldun’s desperate attempts to teach the value of reason and rationality has been lost on so many leaders and members of the developing world. And for developing countries like Malaysia, it underscores Khaldun’s observation that science and proper education are far more important than impressive buildings and vainglorious monuments to power.
Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor
Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore