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Roy Jackson, Nietzsche and Islam

Routledge Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0203028834. $150

Reviewed by Michael J. McNeal

Roy Jackson’s Nietzsche and Islam constitutes an ambitious effort to show how Nietzsche’s hermeneutical and perspectivalist epistemological stance might enable contemporary Islam to revive its Arab essence through a recovery of the authentic meanings of its key paradigms. It is a courageous effort to deal with involutional aporias in mainstream Islamic discourses that drain the faith of life-affirming potential. Jackson also considers misunderstandings between the Islamic world and the West, addressing the “clash of civilizations” thesis, perceptions of Islam in ‘post- 9/11’ discourses and their effects within the Islamic cultural realm (6, 11), and contends that Islam might utilize secularization to better contend with modernity.

Jackson argues that Nietzsche may be understood as a religious philosopher of sorts, one whose religiosity “rests in his lack of ‘faith’ in the secular order to provide humanity with any meaningful existence (13)”. In this context Jackson announces his hope that “Islam…learn from Nietzsche’s religiosity and embrace a ‘living God’ that does not perceive secularization as an enemy”, an aim motivated by the need to "save" Islam from its own Platonic tendencies by fostering a pluralist, "liberal" stance toward its truth claims to broaden interpretation of its main principles (13).

Jackson understands “Islam as an Arabic phenomenon” (9), whose central paradigms include the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammad, Medina as the first ‘Islamic state’, and the four ‘Rightly-Guided’ caliphs, which Jackson argues are indispensable to a revitalization of the Muslim faith (19-20). He offers a quasi-genealogical assessment of major interpretations of the Qur’an while interrogating salient terms and concepts to illuminate the development of Islam’s dominant doctrines and controversies arising therefrom. Utilizing Nietzsche’s exegetical method Islamic scholars might manifest the lost soul of Islam through reanalysis of its sacred text. Citing the “strong tradition within Islam of hermeneutics”, he attributes the “emergence of tafsir and ta’wil [explanation and elaboration] as a science,” to “the willingness of Islamic scholars to not only elaborate on the work of their predecessors but to reject it (71)”. His historical-critical approach contrasts the significance of Jahiliyya—the state of ignorance that prevailed in the Arab world before the advent of Muhammad—with the present, in which knowledge of God is vanishing (101-2). This informs his diagnosis of the malady enervating the contemporary soul of Islam, a condition to be overcome through physio-psychological tranquility provided by the word of the Prophet; a harmony once discernable as the Weltanschauung of the Muslim world that is no longer experienced due to doctrinal inflexibility (102).

Jackson contends that Nietzsche’s interpretive framework equips Islamic scholars to re-evaluate received understandings of the “golden age narrative” that conveyed “the utopic vision of ‘Transhistorical Islam’”, show how it is “relevant to contemporary Islamic discourse” (20), and how the myth of it may be overcome to enhance Islam (138, 145). He considers how an Übermenschlich individual (a new ‘amir’?) might utilize historical interpretations to legislate against normatively homogenizing ‘Transhistorical Islam’ as a Gesetzgeber for a renewed Muslim state. Such a polity would provide the faithful freedom to live according to shahada, “in oneness and unity with God.” Unlike the “unworkable idealized archetype” of the Rashidun, or Islamic Caliphate (145), Jackson’s rehabilitated Islam would foster community in a “relationship…beyond state boundaries”, unperturbed by outside authority (161).

Jackson is persuaded that an Islamic revival—or Renaissance—could be initiated through the application of Nietzsche’s hermeneutics, to renew the essence of Islam against self-generated myths that keep it “safe” in the estimation of its conservative arbiters. Against the culture of conformity its traditional authorities enforce, “Islam, in its essence, is rebellious, revolutionary, and concerned with reform and renewal. […] In Nietzschean terms, we have created idols from our will to truth, yet the essence of Islam is, in fact, to shatter these idols (108).” He therefore argues that a genuinely agonistic form of Islam could transfigure the faith to attain the nomocratic politics befitting the true Muslim nation, the dar al-Islam or House of Islam, wherein religious law, Sharia, is inseparable from communal politics, the umma (19, 26). Interestingly, Jackson believes this is achievable in a way consistent with a qualified form of secularism.

In making his own arguments about the Islamic response to modernity, he seeks to demonstrate that “Nietzsche is not the standard bearer for atheism (1),” and cites Nietzsche’s “constant use of Christian imagery, ideas and concepts, as well as the gospel style adopted in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (47-8)”, to assert that Nietzsche is not the atheist he is commonly thought to be. Nevertheless, while Nietzsche had little to say about Islam, Jackson appeals to his few positive mentions of it without adequately engaging their incongruous fit with his broad critique of slave-morality. Jackson sets out to determine “why Nietzsche felt inclined to be so generous towards Islam and …what this tells us about Nietzsche’s own views on the importance of religion (1)”. However, his analysis is most compelling when he deploys Nietzsche’s thought to gain insight into conflicts within contemporary Islamic identity. Jackson acknowledges that the central text of Islam, the Qur’an, is as vulnerable to selective (mis)interpretation as Nietzsche’s own works, noting that passages of text and terms have been taken out of context to support demagogic politics (72).

Nietzsche’s praise of Moorish culture raises hermeneutical dilemmas, that being how the respective achievements of disparate cultures and contending historical accounts of encounters between them may be productively compared. Where Nietzsche praises the Moors he does so in part to tweak the prejudices of his likely secularized-Christian readers, goading them to take seriously his arguments concerning the deleterious effects wrought on European life by Christianity. Had he looked more deeply into Islam and considered it in terms of his critique of values Nietzsche would have recognized that as part of the Abrahamic tradition Islam slanders life as thoroughly as Christianity—the slave morality of taming—he excoriated. While critical of the function of orientalist discourses in reiterating the West’s “sense of racial and cultural superiority” through the othering of non-Christian peoples, Jackson overlooks how Nietzsche’s praise of the Moors romanticizes them— indicating his own unusual brand of orientalism (2, 4).

This relates to the controversial 'clash of civilizations' thesis originally advanced by Samuel Huntington. Jackson states: "The threat to Islam does not come from the West, nor from secularization. It comes internally, from its own perception of itself. …Islam is killing its own God and, as a consequence, will be forced to either remain an enemy to secularization, leading to greater fundamentalism, or will be 'secularized' so that it ceases to have any identity or life-enhancing philosophy of its own (146)." However, Islam’s conception of itself is shaped, in no small part, by forces originating outside the Islamic cultural realm. This makes the suggestion that recuperating Islam’s identity will save it from secular banalization or militant extremism somewhat incredible. Jackson argues that “Islam does have an essence, and that it is constructive to talk of Islam being compatible with liberalism, democracy and globalization, etc. (8).” This is perplexing given that in our ultra-liberal-modern age, “belief in unconditional authority, in definitive truth; “the foundation” for subordination and “proud obedience… is disappearing (HH 440-1).” Against the continuous onslaught of secularizing Western values, Islam, which means “submission”, is increasingly unable to justify its privileged status within Muslim societies and appears ever more untenable as a source of meaning and purpose to young people throughout the Islamic world.

Jackson radically challenges “the view of Islam as a monolithic ideology (152)”, equating its proper ideological function with the “essence of consultation” crucial to the re-establishment of an authentic Islamic state that is inclusive of diversity and corresponds with “modern political forms”. It is an ideology originating in the egalitarian ethos of the ancient Arab culture from which Mohammad emerged (157). In support of this he asserts the “secularization of society need not lead to the trivialization of religion, so that the spiritual is used for profane purposes”, ignoring the fact that secularization has almost universally diminished traditional religious authority (160). Such a consequence is difficult to distinguish from its “trivialization”—however much Jackson’s ideal Islamic state “defies definition”—and would seem to contradict the indistinguishable role of Sharia law within the umma, which relegates non-Muslims to a secondary social status by means of exclusionary practices placing all dhimmis and kafirun it “others” outside its privileged community (155-57). Jackson hints at the radically transformative potential in the “profane purposes” to which the spiritual might be put within a “proper” secular society—yet how it is to be realized remains unclear, given the rigidity of conventional religious institutions that would first have to be overcome (160-1). His argument for a secularized religious society in Muslim nations, while noting that the “degree this process of secularization is Islamic rather depends on a combination of values, both within and outside the state, within a given time period (160),” fails to adequately account for the powerfully influential forces of Western-led globalization (a coercively secularizing process) and the nihilistic values its consumer culture confers.

While Jackson’s book contains much of value about interpretive challenges regarding Islam’s paradigms in the contemporary world, the aim of reviving its lost essence suggests an underlying reaction to transformations the faith has undergone and challenges it faces in the present. The extent to which such a desire symptomatizes a negative will to nothingness as nihilistic power may suggest a greater commonality between Jackson and Luther, rather than with Nietzsche, and entail another interpretive predicament. The desire to save a decadent religion may indicate increasing enfeeblement and decline, not least on the part of the advocate(s) of such a strategy. Is it not a “dream of crab-like retrogression (TI Hammer—43)”, a salvific illusion that paradoxically replicates aspects of modernity’s own illusory faith in progress — one that likely informed its conception on some level? If so it suggests an unwillingness to deal with the gravity of the matter: the deterioration of Islam’s capacity for cultivating vital forms of life—let alone to overcome its self-inhibiting “golden age narrative”. Readers will wonder if, from a Nietzschean perspective, the aim of resuscitating a degenerating religion isn’t less likely to restore it to health than to metamorphose it into something more harmful.

As an unconscious memoir, Jackson’s optimistic appraisal of Islam’s life-affirming potential is laden with tragic irony, for however much the Muslim faith may once have enhanced salubrious becomings it has been irreparably weakened by the reactive will to truth that prevails among its conventional authorities. Rather than seek to rehabilitate a decadent religion, Nietzsche’s free-Spirited experimenters would attempt to hasten the process of its creative destruction. It is difficult to see how any semblance of Islam’s “authentic” meaning—which ultimately calumniates this world, even in hypothetically secularized form—could survive that process. Jackson’s book, although interesting, may therefore persuade readers that a Nietzschean interpretive stance is inappropriate to the task of recapturing "the essence of Islam’s key paradigms", or of reinvigorating "the hermeneutical core" of that atrophying religion (9).

University of Denver