Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Islamic State or Virtuous City?

Revisiting Plato and Al-Farabi today

Witnessing calls for violence, God’s Rule, juxtaposition/confounding of political and religious slogans, use of Islam for and against particular ideological thought current, one wonders how to understand and differentiate what is truly divine and what is sold as divine. So much counterfeit currency might be in the market that we need a touchstone to judge. Let us explore if we have this touchstone with the help of Plato, “second Master” Al-Farabi and “modern Plato” Voegelin.
      Plato argued for orienting man and his communal institutions toward God/the Good and need for true constitution we can call divine or revealed constitution and dangers of those constitutions in which one part dominates against others and society is no longer an integrated whole governed by Justice that is God, although one can always see its ideal character in the sense that it will only be approximated and never fully the case. as Derrida would note justice is yet to come and justice can never be done. The question is why the academic world has not duly appreciated this Platonic echo in any argument for Islamic State? Isn’t it the case that so far ideologues of Islamic State have adopted a theological language that seems alienating or intimidating to many? In fact the dogma of separation of Church and State that has been enshrined in secular political theory has prevented appreciation of the argument put forth across traditional cultures and echoed in Plato, Evola and Voegelin, among others, in modern times in case of the Western world and among others Al-Farabi in case of the Muslim world. Voegelin’s following lines succinctly sum up the essence of the argument for a theocratic State:

  • “The Republic is written under the assumption that the ruling stratum of the polis will consist of persons in whose souls the order of the idea can become reality so fully that they, by their very existence, will be the permanent source of order in the polis; the Laws is written under the assumption that the free citizenry will consist of persons who can be habituated to the life of Arete under proper guidance, but who are unable to develop the source of order existentially in themselves and, therefore, need the constant persuasion of the prooemia as well as the sanctions of the law, in order to keep them on the narrow path
  • The political form is designed to serve the actualization of the spirit in the life of the community. The spirit lives in the laws.”
      Plato’s standing challenge to secular history and politics is calling attention to the point that the order of the community can’t be achieved unless there is harmony with the divine Measure. Political Islam has a point and that is restating this thesis. However it is thinkers like Al-Farabi and not well known ideologues of political Islam who are better able to translate this insight in the language that modern man would better understand. What constitutes the Divine Measure has been almost forgotten by Modernity. And this contributes, among other things, to tremendous ugliness of the modern city, its art and architecture. What it does in the political and social sphere is  known to everyone who has cared to read the history of twentieth century totalitarianism, holocaust, countless ethnic, communal and other sectarian conflicts and wars, genocides,  broken families and enormous growth in the number of all kinds of social and psychological pathologies. Alienation that is everywhere and so poignantly described in twentieth century literature is to a great extent traceable to this loss of Divine Measure. All those who call for Islam today or return to Tradition or to philosophy in the traditional sense of the terms are responding this mess occurring from the loss of Divine Measure. What needs to be debated is whether one is called to a merely human interpretation or ideology in the name of return to the Divine Measure.
      A few remarks about Al-Farabi’s thesis of compulsion to virtue in his ideal City are in order. Given the point that “Political rule and religion are inseparable because the many cannot grasp the good as noble apart from religious authority; virtue must be enforced through religion” and explicit engagement in both Plato and Al-Farabi with the question of coercion for ensuring establishment of virtuous city in which people cooperate for virtue thanks to his theocratic state, Al-Farabi would like to have compulsion to virtue – not conformity to law. His key terms are virtue, happiness, intellection rather than terms from juristic lore. It is perhaps not accidental that he has not written any book on juristic science. Despite the centrality of Prophet or Imam in his “system” he isn’t keen to impose a religious order. He focuses on transforming people from within and it is only in such a transformed elite that one can find a ruler he demands.
      Al-Farabi has a conception of virtuous city not what is ordinarily called Muslim or Islamic city; he divides the world into virtuous and non-virtuous cities rather than dar-al-islam and dar-al-harb. The compulsion to virtue thesis would hardly have anything resembling the fundamentalist State that are wedded to the necessity of sha’ria imposition identified with historical legal construction rather than a transhistorical quest for fundamental values of Ad-Din that evolving sha’ria formulations seek to approximate and this quest can never fully succeed or must fail in some sense as Justice can never be done and evil never fully wished away. Plato’s Laws or Muslim Law both are attempts to capture the Ideal and can never be absolutized in themselves. Modern philosophical attempts by Muslims to formulate increasingly sophisticated theories of justice in the face of so many totalitarian and other perversions that have marred modern social and political institutions are, generally speaking,  attempts to theorize Shariah for contemporary times.
      According to Voegelin Socrates maintains openness to the experience and eschews readymade answers that he sees revelation or faith forcing on us. Voegelin points out that revelation is best understood as approaching in all humility and seriousness the Quest/Question or “as man’s loving and open-ended reply to an experience of transcendence.” Revelation centric socio-cultural order is what philosophers from Plato to Voegelin have defended though Sayyid Qutb or Sayyid Moududi wouldn’t  consider them as fellow thinkers. Muslim philosophers and Sufis have especially guarded against  the tendency to belittle the Law and fully participating in public religious life. Sufis have been intimate with the masses and guarded against elitism by emphasizing humility as key virtue. Ibn Arabi famously said that sha’ria is haqiqa and any esotericism that rejects literal sense of scripture is heresy. Esotericism transcends rather than rejects literalist exoteric understanding. Masses have not been ridiculed but their limited and more or less literalist or mythological/anthrpomorphic understanding respected. It is true that masses can’t entertain pure truth that esotericism discovers or philosophers preach but that doesn’t imply they are denied entry into heaven for that matter. Even the most literalist of believers in ensured a share in beatitude. Faith alone is enough for salvation. Schuon clarifies the question of revelation versus “philosophy”/mysticism/metaphysics binary in these words in an interview. “The religious, dogmatic or theological perspective is based on revelation; its main purpose is, not to explain the nature of things or the universal principles, but to save man from sin and damnation, and also, to establish a realistic social equilibrium.” Although religion is enough for saving people, “metaphysics satisfies the needs of intellectually gifted men.”
      If we closely attend to the following key passage from Al-Farabi’s Political Regime we find

that elite vs. masses distinction breaks down and philosophy’s privilege appears hardly of
significant value in comparison with religion as the task before man is felicity or salvation and it is virtues that help on this way and all people are alike in need of felicity. “The end of human actions is happiness. Happiness is something all men desire. The voluntary actions by which man attains the end of his existence are called good, and from them proceed the habits of doing good, known as virtues; while the voluntary actions which prevent man from attaining his end are called evil, and from them flow the habits of doing evil, known as vices. Good actions deserve reward, whereas bad actions deserve punishment.”
      To conclude we do need a State that acknowledges sovereignty of God but this isn’t to be understood in narrow legalistic-theological sense but broader philosophical sense that all can appreciate. It is poets who celebrate God’s sovereignty as Love’s dominion. It is so-called secular states, activists and many well meaning NGOs who help realize God’s sovereignty as Justice and Welfare or Happiness index. Man qua man is working, in some sense, for upholding God’s Rule and all great critics are ultimately invoking Divine Measure. ISIS and other forces that speak of God’s rule invoke some kind of Divine Measure are aren’t this Divine Measure. They must be open to criticism and open to experience, to “revelations” of higher reason and sensitive to the march of history that itself reveals God in some way.

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