The World and Deracination — Recalling the Caliphate Book Event

There are a number of questions I have for Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate that I simply lack the resources and framework to ask well. For example, the question of violence came up for me at many times reading his book. Violence of Muslims against Muslims, what it means to speak of Islamism without speaking explicitly about takfiri Islamism, what it means to talk about the caliphate and an Islamic state in the midst of others who claim that they have brought about this very thing. All these questions feel like well-devised traps, though, set to disempower any real engagement or meaningful criticism of Recalling the Caliphate. Such questions will need to be asked, and in many ways have been asked throughout this book event, but in my own attempt to phrase they remains questions that are framed by what Sayyid has called “Westernese”. Under this framework certain questions of Western violence—especially American imperial violence—are purposefully obscured, even from me, as a colonized-colonizer subject. So I want to ask these questions, but I do not know how to do so as someone who, if I were a Muslim, would likely never rightly pass for one. Such “rightly passing” would be denied me in part because of the binary logics at play in politics between the West and the rest or the umma and those who remain in ignorance and do so ontologically.

Instead of asking these questions, which perhaps would betray personal stakes that, precisely because of the frameworks involved, would be embarrassing and laughable, I want instead to focus on the question that I take animating the book. For whatever issues I have with Sayyid’s argument, I accept that there is a subtly to it and that many of the issues, say regarding the question of authoritarianism that arises with the setting of any state or institution, are not unknown to him. But there are a number of concepts which continue to frame his attempt to think a decolonized umma that strike me as retaining significant characteristics of colonialism. One might summarize this text as the attempt to think a transcendent or regulative ideal (he uses the term “ontological”) for a form of life (which Islam is) along with the question of making this actual in the world in structures that are real. Such a task requires at least two moves: 1) the disruption of the colonial (Western) frameworks that structure the world and 2) the setting up of a rival framework that may deliver on the promise of a politics and an ethics that are rightly called Islamic (which for Sayyid necessarily has a socially contested and mutually constructed meaning, akin to McIntyre’s conception of traditions generally). Yet, despite the late inclusion of ethics at the end of the book, this is a book determined by politics and the promise of a future given by politics.

When Sayyid claims that the caliphate may disrupt the world (15) I want to go with him there. When he discusses the umma as diasporic in its lived identity I want to be a part of that umma (Chapter 7). For what I hear spoken in such proclamations is a certain thinking against the colonial world, a certain sense of the human that escapes the ways in which the colonial world has shaped the human, a more humane way of shaping that human. Yet, these claims seem to me incompatible with other proclamations that run throughout the book. For example Sayyid claims that the Islamic venture is “not dissimilar” to the Western enterprise of crafting a common humanity (23). Such a humancrafting is part and parcel of a political project, for which Sayyid largely accepts Schmitt’s definition, and so this humancraft takes place via divisions of friend and enemy, of killable and not, of enslaveable and human. How are we to reconcile the claim that recalling the caliphate is to be a political project (necessarily operating on a decisional basis of separating friend from enemy) and the generic declaration that “Islam is meant for all (51)”? Sayyid is a deft critic of certain liberationist strands of Islamic thought (Dabashi and Ramadan, to go from the more radical to the more moderate) in part because he attempts to take up and work with some of their thought. For example, this generic declaration that Islam is for all shares much with Dabashi’s notion that, with the post-colonial situation, ideological Islam (what we might identify as the Islamism of the Iranian revolution and other regions) must pass away and become something else. If it does not it risks becoming a cancer in the sense where cancer is the refusal of death made by a part of an organism. Sayyid’s criticism takes up this kind of liberationist criticism, but does not trace the lines of differentiation between ideological and liberationist Islam. He traces it along an ontic/ontological divide. But this move largely stands upon his deploying of a decisional apparatus that is (Occidentally) philosophical through and through.

The line between the ontic and the ontological is purely fictional. Which does not mean it lacks effects, but such effects are just as much conditioned by their construction as anything else within the world. To proclaim that there is an ontological Islam is to place Islam and the level of Being, making politics a question of Being itself. This strikes me, as one who does not rightly pass as a Muslim, as a strangely Western and colonized aspect of Sayyid’s argument. For there are resources in kalam for thinking existence without Being but not without Oneness. Sayyid even points to this in his summary of the ways in which secular critiques do not apply to Islam in the same way they do to Christianity (35-7) pointing out that the Oneness of God marks a real separation between the world (where aql or reason retains a kind of relative authority that is subject but does not effect the absolute sovereignty of God). Yet Sayyid remains beholden to a scission between the ontic and the ontological, where the second always remains somehow outside a clear definition and so outside of being clearly contested. I feel I am risking an error in this comparison, but I can’t help but see here an instance of something common to Christian political theology. I’ve called this “weaponized apophaticism” before and what characterizes it is a certain protection of a transcendent identity, as opposed to a lived identity. This suspicion is fostered by the way in which umma very closely matches certain idealized version of the Church in Christian political theology.

If we were to enter into a purely speculative mode we might say, not without controversy, that there is no forgetting of Being in Islam. Sayyid makes such a statement when he claims that the West is the only society to structure itself around technology, or the reducing of the environment to things. Here we see the colonial element of the distinction between the ontic and the ontological that threatens to undo the radical proclamations in Recalling the Caliphate. Part and parcel of the West’s technophilia is the reduction of human beings to things, to resources that are able to produce wealth for others and who may be absolutely alienated and even made socially dead. I am speaking of course of slavery and the anti-black racist paradigm that ideologically structured this practice of humancraft. While Sayyid declares the caliphate as a means to disrupt the world he also calls for the caliphate to perform the redemption of the umma by rooting it in the world (218). We might ask what this world is. Frank B. Wilderson and others have argued that the world (the “white world” as Fanon called it) is structured by anti-blackness, that the political world of whiteness is built upon the inclusive exclusion of black subjects by marking them as not-human (it is worth pointing out that Sayyid largely avoids the question of race, which in a book on decolonialism strikes me as strange, but we find a single reference to whiteness on page 114). We might ask if either ontic or ontological Islam is truly free of the anti-blackness that structures that world if it is driven by the same politico-ontological vision of the world as the West. Historically the answer to this is fraught, since the African slave trade was begun by Arabs and within an Islamicate normative context. While it is undeniable that the Christian West ultimately forges the anti-black world and does so through specifically Christian means, there is an anti-blackness running through Islam akin to that Christian anti-blackness.

One of the main parallels between Christianity and Islam in this way was a prohibition of enslaving a member of the faith and the creation of loopholes specifically for black skinned Africans, as Orlando Patterson outlines in his comparative study of slavery. A quotation from Ibn Khaldun opens Recalling the Caliphate and in a footnote Sayyid wonders if all postcolonial theory is but a footnote to Ibn Khaldun. In the midst of a book arguing for an ontological reading of Islam contra ontic ones this is interesting. Ibn Khaldun is often taken to be the end of a certain kind of higher thinking in Islam. For example, Christian Jambet claims that Ibn Khaldun’s thinking is the end of philosophy in the Islamicate world and the beginning of sociology. The end of the ontological and the beginning of the ontic we might say. But what is really postcolonial about a theory based upon the same Ibn Khaldun who made the ontological declaration that of the blacks who lived in the southernmost portion of Africa, “they are not to be numbered among humans” (this is quoted in Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican, p. 103)? If the West and the Caliphate share the same anti-black world then what is required is not a disruption, but its end. By this I do not mean to put forward an anti-Islamic discourse. Instead I want to suggest that any real decolonization must not come from transcendent names structured by the same colonial split, but by a more radical distinction that is found in places like Black Islam (part of the umma, but also not, as many Black Muslims have written about generally and with reference to particular events). We might simply put it this way: an X over Qutb, an ethics that determines politics, that breaks the world.

And so this is where I am with Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate. If Islamism may bring about a decolonization of the world order, I’m sure that is in some sense a good thing, despite any Western anxieties I have to some of what that requires. After all, such decolonization would likely require great violence, especially in so far as it is a political act. Such violence does not even trouble me, not absolutely anyway and at least not simply because it is violence (though I suspect it may trouble those subject to it, which, who knows, may include me as well as others who are already subject to great violence since Muslim is not the only name for victim). As some of those will undoubtedly be colonizers their colonizing machine will only stop when confronted with greater violence, as Fanon claimed. But if such violence is undertaken to foster a “rootedness in the world” then it is a violence not to end violence, but to sow the seeds of future violence. If it is not violence to end the world, then it is violence to secure a future for the world. The structure of that world does not change. It may do so at an ontic level and even at the ontological level, but it will remain the world. It will remain a kind of machine that secures distinctions between those who are enslaveable and those who are free, those who are human and those who are not. It will simply be an ideological revolution of the colonial system, and not a cultural revolution that fosters a true decolonial universe. What is needed is not rootedness in the world, but absolute deracination which marks something other than simple suicide. Navigating what that means is a task for the present.

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