Like many of our readers I’ve watched the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt unfold with a mixture of hopeful expectation and anxious trepidation. It has been a long time since something called a revolution has actually been one. Still, I am one of those on the Left who celebrate every act of resistance, regardless of its subsequent failure, because they serve to remind all of us that the state we are in is always contingent. That there are fissures and cracks dotting the seemingly monolithic entity that is Empire. And so with the same expectation I have watched and tried to understand. I don’t think that I do completely understand, as I’m sure most of us feel, but I felt the need to write down some thoughts on the matter especially since the other big theology blogs yet again remain silent in the face of massive political and social unrest. Preferring instead to continue their usual self-flagellation about their chosen career path or posting links to lectures by yet another conservative theologian espousing a sophisticated form of apologetics.
All of these events have happened at the same time as my interests in certain messianic forms of Islam has deepened, mostly through reading the work of Christian Jambet and his teacher Henry Corbin (though through them I’ve now tracked down a few English translations of their source materials that I’m looking forward to reading, sadly many of them remain untranslated in English with Brigham Young University leading the field in translation[!]). They worked mainly on Ismaili Shi’a Islam and Sufi Islam, but the contribution of Corbin in showing that there exists a larger mystical tradition in Islam outside of Sufism and that there is a distinct philosophical tradition in Islam as a whole should not be discounted. While Corbin’s personal politics are certainly suspect, I don’t think we can really locate in him the anti-semitism present in many Orientalist’s focus on Sufism within Islam.
What strikes me about Corbin’s theory of religion, subsequently taken up by Jambet, is its dualistic essence: there is an Islam where forms of liberty are manifested and there is a law-bound Islam. The reason I’m attracted to this is because I think it works generally as a metaphysical model of religion and politics, and we see it operative in thinkers as diverse as Bergson (the static religion of closed morality and the dynamic religion of open morality) and Negri (constitutive power and constituted power). Sometimes these two metaphysical tendencies can be located within a single body, as in Qutbism (which is an ideological form at play within the Muslim Brotherhood) where there is simultaneously a closed society of true Muslisms and an underlying devotion to the universal freedom of the divine that manifests itself politically, at least in his late writings, in the rejection of all forms of human governance. This fundamental ambiguity at the heart of every religion, between the outbreaking of the messianic act (which is always, in the last instance, a human or “creatural” act and so not an ‘inbreaking’) and the capture of creative power by way of some form of the law. Qutbist conceptions of the law are perhaps the most dangerous and mirror standard biopolitical models of “(self-)care of the self” where the law is internalized within, rather than being located within a regime that one can be against. Yet, this is also what makes Qutbism so close to the form of the messianic act that we see throughout religious history, notably for Islamic history in the Ismaili proclamation in 1164 of the “Grand Resurrection”, where the abolition of the external law occurs through the internalization of a higher law (Taubes writings on Marx and Kierkegaard are of interest here).
The Grand Ressurection is the focus of Christian Jambet’s simply amazing book La grande résurrection d’Alamût. Les formes de la liberté dans le shî’isme ismaélien. There he traces the proclamation alongside of a number of different philosophical and theological treatises by important Ismaili thinkers. In short, the event of the Grand Resurrection, proclaimed in the middle of Ramadan, abolished the law and instead united the entrenched community according to a single imperative – to contemplate in the perfect man (the resurrected man) the visible and manifest face of divinity. In short, this was a utopian community where one lives a divine life in the midst of this World, at once focused internally and yet remaining a political community. While Jambet cautions his readers from making an overly hasty connection between this event and political revolutions related to class struggle, he himself makes sees within the abolition of the law and the interior turn of the Ismailis a form of cultural revolution (which I’ve written about before).
It seems that if we are to understand these situations, or even if we are to understand the ongoing struggle in Iran to make actual the revolutionary moment of 1979 after it was captured (in part through democrat means) by Khomeini, then we must begin to consider the role of law and religion at work in Islam and it may be that, especially it in its heretical forms, Islam has real consequences for philosophy. But the Muslim is, as Medhi Belhaj Kacem has argued, the pariah of Europe. Kacem’s point is largely adapted from Agamben’s Homo sacer, but he shows how the Muslim population of Europe is both interior to Europe’s identity and excluded from that identity. In some sense this is true in general, since Empire remains a largely European entity and since within Empire the peripheral nations to Europe are still interior to its political and economic functioning. I think that the ban Kacem locates regarding those in the banlieues, largely Black, North African or Arabic and thus “Islamic” bodies, is operative in our philosophy of religion as well.
As philosophers largely within the “Continental tradition”, meaning, in some sense, related to the history of Europe, Islamic thought is somehow never fully engaged with. Toscano points this out regarding Zizek, who never engages with Islam philosophically in the same way he is willing to engage both Judaism and Christianity, but I think it goes back in some sense to Hegel, who Toscano also talks about (actually I just re-read the chapter on Islam, “The Revolution of the East”, in his Fantaticism and it is really brilliant and helpful). Hegel’s philosophy of religion does deal with Islam, but in some sense Islam comes out of sync with the rest of his historical philosophy because Islam comes after the consummate religion. He’s able to wiggle around it somewhat by placing the true consummation of religion in Protestant Christianity, which develops after Islam, and in this way he can lump together the excesses of universalism present in Islam with that of Catholicism, often seen to be in rivalry with the State. But this exactly repeats the ban on Islam MBK locates. For Islam is the constitutive exception to philosophy of religion – it both doesn’t fit within the schema, and so is excluded, and negatively reveals the truth of Protestant Christian universalism. (In MBK’s most recent book, L’esprit du nihilisme. Une ontologique de l’Historie [a critical but appreciative review in English by Alexander Galloway is available online], he, who is himself of Tunisian origin, reveals that Islam actually offers universal resources for thinking through the contemporary political situation. He writes, polemically, that “The Islamic fissuration of the being-One … intuits already the beyond of Christianity and thus the “supercession” of Hegelianism.”)
Who knows if what we are seeing play out today will be the imperative community of tomorrow or will slip into an Ideological Islamist Thermidorian reaction, if this will be the overturning of a culture, or simply the replacing of the old master with a new one. What is clear though is that, if it succeeds, it will do so by way of Islamic material transformed through secular forms. That is the only way I can understand the Egyptians resisting the police by holding prayer, which is at once a sign of obedience but also of rebellion to this regime, or to Coptic Christians forming a human shield around those at prayer in much the same way Muslims formed a chain around Coptic churches during the celebration of Orthodox Christmas after they were attacked by fundamentalists. In each case, like the protesters who announce to the media that they are ready to die on the street or those in Tahrir [Liberation] Square who deified the fighter jets and military helicopters trying to intimidate them, we see an example of the life of the resurrection. These people do not care about survival, after all there was a very real threat today of a massacre from the air, but they are living as if immortal. I’m waiting to see, with hopeful expectation, if these Islamic struggles can continue to draw their power from the generic secular, but I also know that those of us in the West must not cower and acquiesce to the media image of the dangerous Muslim and try to think this as if it were an event, rather than prize our secularism.