Toward theophany in historiography
When do chance and coincidence coalesce into events greater than the merely serendipitous, to evidence providential irony and destinal intent? When do experiential phenomena represent more than manifestations of blind personal, historical, and natural forces, to become the brush strokes of some hidden artist painting his masterpiece? These are questions I’ve meditated upon throughout my life in one form or another, about the twists and turns, peaks and pitfalls, and the clash between desire and possibility, that characterize the human journey and the long evolution of the universe. And then early Monday morning, something remarkable happened.
The complex dance between Islam and the West has been on my mind a lot lately. Even in its most stereotypically Renanian-Lewisian form, it’s an amazing story: Arabic-Islamic Aristotelian learning re-ignites the Latin-Christian Platonic world, giving rise to Scholasticism and eventually the Renaissance and Modernity; rejuvenated Europe, in turn, seeking a way to outmanoeuvre Muslim polities, launches across the Atlantic Ocean and discovers the Americas; further empowered, Europe gradually conquers much of the Muslim world, bringing Modernity there, but the imperialist-colonialist project doubles-back upon the Continent, ripping it to shreds in the World Wars; and today, post-Modern Muslim immigration is bringing both new lifeblood and old demons to the demographically and intellectually depleted Continent, the future results of which are anyone’s guess. And as in any dance, wherein the two partners join to create some greater harmony, I’ve secretly wondered whether what we normally call “Islam” and the “West” are just two tones of the same song — a single multifaceted civilization.
My idea isn’t new per se, at least in its constituent features, that is, the role of Islam, direct or indirect, explicit or implicit, in Europe’s mighty struggles over the last millennia. Its originality, if I may be so bold in granting it that distinction, lies in its logic: if Islam and the West have been in a dialectical relationship with each other for so long, then, at one level, as Aristotle argued about dialectic, there must be some fundamental, if tacit and unconscious, points of deep agreement, at at another level, as Hegel argued, there must eventually emerge an unity constituted by them.
Yet, whenever I’ve proposed this argument to fellow Westerners, they’ve often rejected it as “too metaphysical” or “disrespectful” of historical nuances. They are able to stomach its structural historical elements, but only as isolated chronological units: yes, Averroes and Avicenna profoundly influenced Aquinas, they say, but that doesn’t make them Western nor Saint Thomas a Muslim, and so on. Their hesitation to go as far as I do with the linkages seems to arise from concern that my view diminishes the unique qualities of the Islamic and Western traditions, or worse, obliterates the very notion of identity as an historical, much less ontological, reality. After all, if I’m willing to say that Aquinas was Islamic and Averroes was Christianic (note my play with adjectives here), then who’s to stop me from saying that Confusius was Americanistic or Jefferson was Paganistic? My view would, in their view, make gibberish out of epistemological and historical categories.
Underlying this, though, I believe is a deeper Hegelian terror that the Other of Islam is really the Self of the West and that a Freudian abyss awaits in the confessional synthesis. For all of our era’s Foucaultian distaste for identity, and behind it, our Heideggerian disdain for ontology, we still desperately cling to rigid categories with nervous metaphysical intensity. As a member of the Bahai Faith, I also believe that endemic to this terror and anxiety is a Heraclitan vision of history, namely, that binary opposition is necessary for the development of identity and culture, and therefore that conflict is the engine of progress — Dike eris, war is the mother of all.
Now, I should concede that, given the behavior of the human race up to now, the Heraclitan view is usefully diagnostic. Yet, I believe its Darwinian, Marxist, and Capitalist formulations over the last two centuries have in fact constituted an immense shying away from the greater call within the heart of the human race to change that behavior and unlock greater depths of human potential, to rise above Heraclitan adolescence into Kiekegaardian adulthood — as Muhammad once said, to cease waging the lesser outer jihad against each other and to wage the greater inner jihad within ourselves as individuals and as societies — and onward to Socratic maturity.
Of course, I’ve been talking about those who know or are willing to know about the linkages between Islam and the West. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered they are still a minority in the West. My meditation on the connection between Averroes, the Jewish intellectual tradition, and my family came as a shock to many of my loved ones and colleagues back in the United States (evidence that I’ve not been doing my duty very well). Very often they asked me, quite pointedly, “Why haven’t I ever heard of Averroes before?” Again, I think the reason is fear, but not far from that is also profit. In a twist that Averroes would appreciate, the minority, or at least some among them, needs to regulate how the majority understands its own past, especially its relationship with Islam, in order to justify that very Heraclitan of enterprises, the weapons industry (to say nothing of the West’s adventures in the Middle East or how Islamic modernizers and theocrats have likewise manipulated historical memory for their own agendas). But I digress. What does all the foregoing have to do with the questions I posed at the beginning of this post?
Since becoming a Bahai, a new concept has entered my meditative vocabulary, namely, divine confirmations. In discussions with fellow Bahais, I’ve found these to be commonly understood as phenomena, experiences, and insights that each believer perceives as constituting sign-posts on the road of his or her life. So, for example, my remark in my last post about “how it seems there may be some spiritual blessing for my chosen [academic] pursuit” here in Leuven could be interpreted by me as divine confirmations, so-defined, of my academic decisions and/or indications of spiritual forces working to tear down certain veils in my faculty.
Now, on the one hand, this is not an exclusively Bahai notion, as even atheists can and do experience synchronicities that appear beguilingly fortuitous, even if they are hesitant to ascribe any greater metaphysical status to them (and it’s for this reason why I hope many non-Bahais may find my reflections herein of use to them). On the other hand, there are obvious problems with this common definition, most notably that it suffers from the same relativism, pattern-seeking, and egoism as astrology and dream interpretation. A secularist might also add that such egoism is a necessary precondition of being religious, i.e., religion teaches that the universe was made for humanity’s benefit, whereas science teaches us that the universe is cold and indifferent to us. I would obviously argue the contrary — first, that these are only the most popular forms of either religion and science specific to our historical era, and second, that at the highest levels of true religion and true science is a shared sense of theophanic wholeness and a common teleos. But that’s not to say that the universe is indeed “made for humanity’s benefit”.
You see, as I was returning from America to Belgium, in the early Monday dawn over Europe, I witnessed a remarkable thing. I was seated besides a window overlooking the plane’s starboard wing reading Avempace’s Épître de l’adieu when I glanced out and saw a fluorescent sunrise emerging from behind the horizon of a vast ocean of cloud, and there, above it, was a crescent moon and a single brilliant star. I looked everywhere in the sky for another star but found none. Gradually shock gave way to awe: here I was beholding, implausibly, impossibly, the symbol of Islam itself, raised high over the Continent.*
Insofar as this could be described as a divine confirmation, there’s an immediate temptation to consider it as an affirmation of my academic quest and my view on the relationship between Islam and the West. The secularist, however, would immediately and rightly point out that the crescent moon and star is an ancient symbol with no necessary, much less ontological, relationship to Islam, and that as a natural phenomena, it was nothing more than coincidence out of which my mind sought to make a more meaningful pattern. Indeed, the secularist might find it ironic that at the moment of my discovery, I was reading Avempace’s criticism of Al-Ghazzali, which reads,
Il est clair que la condition de cet homme n’a pas quitté cette catégorie ni son état antérieur, et qu’il se trompe, ou cherche à tromper par de fantasmes de la vérité. Cela resort du fait qu’il établit comme fin la contemplation du monde intelligible, à ce qu’il prétend, et la jouissance des merveilles que l’homme voit dans ce monde. Il prend comme symbole de cela les grandes villes et le quand fait le que l’homme éprouve du plaisir en y arrivant et an contemplant leurs différents états et les états de leurs parties: que dire alors du monde intelligible? Le rapport entre la contemplation de ce monde-là et le plaisir de contempler le peuple des grande villes est comme le rappor de ce monde aux habitants des villes, et ainsi de suite, part quoi il veut suggérer que la fin ultime de la connaissance de la vérité est la plaisir.
A stoic, meanwhile, might counter along similar lines: as this was a natural phenomena, and a massive one at that, dare I be so narcissistic as to believe that it was meant especially for me? We exist in and for the world, not the other way around, he might add.
In truth, in my view, they would both be right, but they’re also missing the point. On the one hand, there is indeed a danger of narcissism, one that could instrumentalize the very natural order to service my atomistic Nietzschean will-to-power. This has been precisely the problem of the human race for the past thousand years, reducing nature, and with it, human history and individuality, to service ideological systems great and small, from the Church to Marx to the Free Market, from Napoleon to Hitler to the Marlboro Men of post-Modern mass society. In this light, the insistence of, as it were, Galilean science and religion, upon the ontological independence, or indeed, ontological sovereignty, of physical nature over and above the human mind, has been necessary to resist its imperialism. Yet, on the other hand, that same insistence has also been at the core of the instrumentalizing project, and has divested the mind’s interaction with the natural world, and with it the social world, of the epistemological bases that make true, enlightened religiosity and scienticity possible. The world of experience becomes a zone of Heraclitan conflict, at best a Spinozan marvel or a Camusian freak, but never a Desmondian wonder — a that-it-is-at-all.
Epistomelogically-speaking, then, divine confirmations are actually a decision on the part of the spiritual seeker to view the universe as speaking, or more, as the spoken of some even greater voice, and ourselves as just some of this voice’s words; to envision the all that exists as a dream and that we, as phenomenon in that dream, experienced to others and to ourselves, are the ever-morphing phantasms hinting at significances that our minds stumble to understand in the groggy moments of philosophical wakefulness.** The spiritual seeker takes the role of Al-Ghazzali in Avempace’s critique by taking the Kiekegaardian decision to embrace the transrational and declare: I am not my own story, I am not my own dream; I am told, and I am dreamt, and most of all, I am interpreted, for we are the constellations in the sky; we are the Jungian archetypes in the collective unconscious; we are the hermeneutics of the historian’s pursuit of the past.
This is the cognitive background to my theory on Eurabianism: I choose to see greater significance in the interaction between Islam and the West, to perceive history, like the universe, as a cosmos, rather than discrete gears in a vast, sometimes efficient, sometimes clunky machine; as a civilization slowly unfolding itself to itself to another, a Spirit within and without history, a Spizonan holism that is not whole. Yes, at one level, history was what it was, discretely and empirically, as van Ranke said — Thomas was not Islamic. But at another level, history was, and is and shall be, what it must be, beyond the discrete and empirical, at the level of unity. If I may quote Seyyed Hossein Nasr,
The first steps on the path to the Garden of Truth consist of detachment from the world and surrender to God, which means attachment to Him. By “world” we mean here not theophanies and signs of God that surround us even in this terrestrial abode, but the world as the veil that covers the truth and disperses our soul. The roots of our fallen human soul are sunk deeply in the soil of this world. The first action to take is to pluck these roots out of that which is transient and evanescent and sink them into the Divine Reality. At first this Divine Reality appears as unreal since our soul has become externalized and scattered, depending only on the outer senses for its awareness of what is real and what is illusory. Awakening from the sleep of forgetfulness, which is the necessary condition for following the path, brings about the realization that the world that we usually take as being the sole reality is itself a dream. The Prophet once said, “Man is asleep and when he dies he awakens.” Spiritual discipline in Sufism commences with what is called “initiatic death” followed by awakening. Through the rite of initiation into a Sufi order, the disciple is supposed to die to his or her old self to be born anew. (The Garden of Truth, 95)
This initiatic death and awakening is precisely what I believe Baha’u'llah’s message of unity has called upon civilization in general and the academic disciplines in particular to do, that is, to pass through empiricism into unity — not at the abandonment of the latter, but its transformation. The reconciliation of religion and science called for in the Bahai Writings is correspondent to, if not synonymous with, their vision of the eventual harmonization of the kingdoms of earth and heaven: a synthesis leading to a new civilizational bloom.
*The photograph accompanying this post is of the momentous sight, which I took a few minutes before my plane began its descent. You may click on it for a larger view, although unfortunately the quality does not capture the elegance of the moon, the brilliance of the star, or the fluorescence of the sunrise. The bulge in the foreground is the plane engine. (Also, an interesting quote on divine confirmations: luck as effectively synonymous with spiritual favor.)
** Many thanks to Liza Cortois for pointing out the cognitive element going on in the concept of divine confirmations. Her exact words: “It’s to choose to see the universe as alive and communicative.”