“I am a Thing, Not a Person”: Rethinking Difference in Recalling the Caliphate

Yasmina Raiani

 

Do they seek for other than the Religion of Allah?―While all creatures in the heavens and on earth have, willing or unwilling, bowed to His Will (accepted Islam) [aslama], and to Him shall they all be brought back.

Surat Al ‘Imran (3:83) (Yusuf Ali)

Islam is, for S. Sayyid, a divinely given and ‘ummatically’ inflected name that assembles “narratives and practices, heritages and futures” (9) from which a “total way of life” can bloom (47). Sayyid stresses that Islam is a “relational and contrastive” collective identity enabled by difference and rejection (28; also see 72, 162). He writes that the Prophet’s arrival mended reigning social schisms and oriented a freshly minted world around a new fissure between Muslims and non-Muslims (see 172). We live in the historical sequence emerging from this chasm.[1]

But as the foregoing ayah suggests, even Khomeini’s Great Satan is Muslim to the extent that he acts in accordance with God’s will: the kafir’s submission may be unknowing and unwilling, but it is nevertheless named “Islam.” In Kitab Jawahir al-Qur’an, Ghazali reminds us that if, as Sayyid suggests, Islam is indeed “a language that Muslims use to tell stories about themselves” (190-1), it is equally a vital language spoken by the world in its entirety:

…[Y]ou suppose that in the universe there is only the language of statement. This is why you did not understand the meaning of the words of God (may He be exalted!), “There is not a thing but celebrates His praise.” Nor do you understand the meaning of the words of God (may He be exalted!), “They [i.e. the heavens and the earth] submitted [to You] willingly,” unless you suppose that the earth has a language and life. (57)

This is not to say that the submissions of the stone, the plant, the animal, the kafir (evil or otherwise), and the deliberately submissive Muslim person are necessarily indistinguishable.[2] But the clustering of their various ontological states under the name of Islam underscores the need to further detail the type of “difference” through which the umma conceptualizes and experiences itself, its enemies and the world in which it seeks to intervene.

We might take steps in this direction by way of a detour through Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, which Sayyid cites in his reference to the ethical charge of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven (169). According to Iqbal’s evolutionary spiritualism, all of creation partakes of egohood, which reaches its pinnacle in the human, who is uniquely endowed with free will and the burden of personality. But if the human does not discipline and refine her personality by “evolv[ing] the inner richness of [her] being” through (Islamic) religious and political exercise, her connection to the “inward push of life” dulls, and she reverts to the “level of dead matter” (10). This hardening of the spirit into stone (10)—experienced equally by the inactive Muslim and the kafir—marks a slippage into another ontological state of submission, variously captured by Surat Al ‘Imran and Jawahir al-Qur’an.

But it is not merely that the Muslim ought to fight against a reversion to inanimacy. Indeed, as Iqbal’s discussion of “higher fatalism” suggests, it is precisely when the human attains the evolutionary peak of animacy that she “returns” once again to the status of dead matter, to the extent that something can “return to its new form” (Agamben 167). Iqbal writes that “unitive experience” in the heat of (social) action—the paradigmatic ego-refining exercise—begets such expressions as, “I am a thing, not a person” (88). Iqbal’s foray into “higher fatalism” uncovers an aporia seated at the heart of his theory of free will, which I do not have the space to develop here. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note that, for Iqbal, the fire of unitive experience preserves the human ego (and its free will) while simultaneously rendering it momentarily indistinguishable from the Divine Ego and all the smaller egos that proceed from it (including that of the rock). In this context, to say, “I am a thing, not a person,” is to recognize that one partakes of all the “Islams” in Sayyid’s constitutive system of differences: the Islam of the stone, the Islam of the Muslim person, the Islam of the kafir.

A Sufi committed to the total effacement of the human will in mystical experience might celebrate the Muslim’s ascent to an unwilling state of Islam in stronger terms. Either way, what matters is that the unwilling state of Islam can be mobilized, to return to Sayyid, “as a horizon which orients and structures Muslim aspirations” (175). Like the umma as rendered by Sayyid, the state of unwilling submission condensed in the figure of the non-Muslim is “a horizon as well as an actuality” (115): even the deliberately submissive Muslim person enacts an unwilling submission in the sense that she is constantly subject to a divine will that she can only partially grasp. It is this state that the Muslim must both depart from and “return” to.

Sayyid notes that difference always suggests the possibility of conflict (28). Although he is scarcely calling upon us to fight the unbelievers wherever we might find them, he nevertheless implies that the necessarily antagonistic enterprise of instituting the caliphate (183) must be conceptualized (at least partially) via the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim. Iqbal’s Reconstruction offers one avenue through which that defining distinction can be maintained but re-framed. It contains an invitation to fight your enemy while simultaneously drawing inspiration from her, appreciating her as an ego under God’s sway and as a sign of God’s infinite power.

Recalling the Caliphate thus leaves us with a question. The book is, as its subtitle suggests, primarily concerned with decolonizing the world order. Sayyid writes that the caliphate as a “great power” would shape the “norms and values” of the “international system” (123) or “order” (122) over which it presides (also see 124). In Sayyid’s view, the caliphate would uniquely accommodate “the fundamental pluralism of this planet” (82), inscribing that pluralism in its very architecture (see 190). As such, the caliphate demands a conception of difference that can adequately articulate both antagonism and friendship in the name of Islam. Most importantly, it asks what a world politically arranged around this “other difference” might look like.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. “The Messiah and the Sovereign.” Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. 160-174.

Al-Ghazali, Muhammad. Jewels of the Qur’an (Kitab Jawahir Al-Qur’an). Trans. Muhammad Abul Quasem. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1977.

Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012.

Sayyid, S. Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and World Order. London: C. Hurst, 2014.

[1] For more on history as “sequence” and the caliphate, see 133, 182, 184, 190.

[2] The second ayah invoked by Ghazali (41:11), for instance, indicates that the earth has submitted to God willingly, leaving only the unwilling creatures referred in Surat Al ‘Imran (presumably, humans) in a state of unwilling submission. That said, the term used to designate “submission” in 41:11 is not islam, so it may not be apt to compare the submission described here to that described in 3:83.

One Response to ““I am a Thing, Not a Person”: Rethinking Difference in Recalling the Caliphate

  1. Michael S. Pearl Says:

    Islam is, for S. Sayyid, a divinely given and ‘ummatically’ inflected name that assembles “narratives and practices, heritages and futures” (9) from which a “total way of life” can bloom (47). … Sayyid notes that difference always suggests the possibility of conflict (28). Although he is scarcely calling upon us to fight the unbelievers wherever we might find them, he nevertheless implies that the necessarily antagonistic enterprise of instituting the caliphate (183) must be conceptualized (at least partially) via the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim. Iqbal’s Reconstruction offers one avenue through which that defining distinction can be maintained but re-framed. It contains an invitation to fight your enemy while simultaneously drawing inspiration from her, appreciating her as an ego under God’s sway and as a sign of God’s infinite power.

    It is most definitely up to Muslims to determine who are Muslims, how to be Muslims or Islamic, and, thereby, what are aspects of Islam. However, as Arendt could well inform (and as a matter of personal experience), it is not only those individuals who align or associate themselves under a particular name and narrated history who determine the content or meaning of that name and that history. This naming-by-the-other (or by the outsider or by the stranger) can be taken as part of “a mode of enquiry that opens a space for interventions” (Sayyid, p. 3), but it is only by presuming that inquiry intends – or worse, risks – interference or disruption that naming-by-the-other can be taken as the veritable origin of an antagonism, a sign of difference possibly deserving of the distinction called “enemy”.

    Once the context (or perspective) is set wherein primacy is given to the friend/enemy distinction, the “inspiration” to be drawn from the enemy is very unlikely to be an appreciation of the other (the enemy) in the current person of that other; instead, it is more likely that the so-called appreciation will be nothing other than an occasion, a tool, a thing to be utilized to reinforce the vocabulary, the semantics, the manners of expression which have been put in place to name (in this discussion) Islam and define what it is to be a Muslim. Such a way of life risks insularity; it risks establishing insularity as a veritable institution.

    But, then, there is the matter of ethics which Sayyid raises: “the constant possibility of a better union between what is and what ought to be” (Sayyid, p. 174).

    Has anything closed off the possibility that it might be better to respond to an unbeliever or a non-Muslim not as a thing “under God’s sway” but as a person whose very otherness or strangeness might indicate something more – not “of God’s infinite power”, but instead – about God’s infinitude? Of course, this ethics question also relates to a question about justice inasmuch as ethics and justice are not necessarily identical: Is justice ever to be concerned with persons as uniquely individual such that justice is for the sake of persons as uniquely individual, or does justice disregard or veritably eliminate the uniqueness of subjects and instead, in effect, acknowledge and utilize only objects as tools and building-blocks?

    If such questions are raised by an unbeliever or by a non-Muslim, are those inquiries well or best characterized in terms of opening up a space for interventions or interference? If such questions are raised by a Muslim, are those inquiries well or best characterized differently? To put it differently, do such questions indicate whether the questioner is friend or enemy?


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