The American historian Richard Wolin in his book The Seduction of Unreason wrote that after being disillusioned by the collapse of student revolts of the 1960s, many young leftist intellectuals in Europe began to engage with the works of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. They declared the death of modernity and the birth of ‘post-modernity.’ Nietzsche sat well with this thinking.
Nietzsche was a prolific writer to whom ‘fame’ came quite late in life. He couldn’t enjoy much of it though, because he eventually went mad and died a sad death. In fact, his work became largely popular after his demise. Nietzsche is often considered to be one of the most influential critics of the ‘Enlightenment’ — an intellectual movement that dominated philosophy in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The movement was centred around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy. It advocated ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. Intellectual activity that mushroomed from this movement greatly influenced epic events such as the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment saw the withering away of the political, economic and moral ethos of a pre-modern world and the birth of a modern one.
Nietzsche was not impressed. He was an early component of the so-called ‘counter-Enlightenment.’ He was an admirer of what he called ‘Great Politics.’ He associated this with the eminent European empires of yore. According to Wolin, Nietzsche was “an apostle of cultural grandeur.” He loved sweeping, rousing pieces of music which, to him, had the creative passion that the great empires of the past had possessed. But he also romanticised the power, cruelty and the warrior ethos of the empires that he admired.
He despised Christianity for undermining the potential for greatness in men. On the other hand, to him, liberalism and its ideals that were products of the Enlightenment, were doing the same by empowering mediocrity in the name of meritocracy and democracy. Nietzsche insisted that ‘great power’ can only be had and wielded by men that had the will to take the place of the Divine (who Nietzsche declared as ‘dead’). For this, such men had to “cross the Rubicon” – a metaphor meaning reaching a point of no return.
To Nietzsche, such a crossing would result in the making of the Übermensch or the ‘overman’ and/or the new man – with his own set of rules and values that had nothing to do with old Christian values nor with the ideas of reason and rationality that the Enlightenment valued. In fact, Nietzsche believed, he had become the Übermensch. He had crossed the Rubicon. But the result in his case was not wilful greatness, but severe mental illness.
To postmodernists, Nietzsche’s Übermensch was now, first and foremost, a cultural being and a creative force at war with the ‘oppressive’ tendencies of conventional religion, rationalism and even science
Decades later, Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch was reconstructed as an ideal for the ‘great Aryan race’ that the Nazis were claiming to resurrect from the ashes of an imagined ancient Germanic past. This was a past that the Nazis romanticised as being ‘mighty and glorious.’ The Nazis feared that this past was being buried by the ideals of the Enlightenment.
Nietzsche had wanted to crush both reason and religion in a bid to construct an elite group of men who had attained the highest possible expressions of mental and spiritual might (albeit with a hammer). But he was not anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism was at the core of Nazism. So, years after Nietzsche’s death, his writings were distorted by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche to make him seem anti-Jewish. As a result, posthumously, he became a prophet and philosopher of Nazism. However, after Nazism’s collapse in 1945, and the surfacing of evidence of the horrific crimes against humanity that Nazism had inspired, Nietzsche was once again discarded to the fringes.
In his own time, Nietzsche had declared himself a great visionary whose work could only be grasped by future generations. But when he was resurrected in the late 1970s by the early postmodernists, they presented him as ‘anti-politics’ and anti-idealism – or a man who was more interested in rejuvenating society through cultural tools such as literature, music, language, etc. From being ‘revolutionaries,’ the disillusioned leftists had become relativists. They scoffed at the universal notions of rationality and the truth, insisting that every culture had its own truths that were according to their own realities.
In other words, if many of these ‘truths’ contradicted the universal ideas of rationality and even science, this did not mean they were untruths. It just meant that they had rejected the notions of truth that were constructed and monopolised by the Enlightenment and the West, and peddled as being universal. Therefore, to postmodernists, Nietzsche’s Übermensch was now, first and foremost, a cultural being and a creative force at war with the ‘oppressive’ tendencies of conventional religion, rationalism and even science.
He was the anti-modern, yearning to create something post-modern.
An influential Islamic scholar too would (uncannily) become a cultural being, even though his ambitions were entirely political. His name is Abu’l Ala Maududi. The first few decades of modern Muslim-majority nation-states (after gaining independence) were dominated by anti-colonial currents that were largely secular and nationalist in nature. These states and nations were not against modernist and ‘rational’ models of development and progress that the colonial powers had introduced. Rather, the new Muslim nation-states strived to prove that inherent in their peoples’ faith and nationalism was a modernity and rationality that was more organic than the ones introduced by the colonialists.
Between the 19th and mid-20th centuries, various Muslim nationalist intellectuals constructed a body of work to posit a thesis which claimed that elements of Western modernity such as nationalism, the rational/disenchanted reading of holy scriptures, scientific thought and democracy had all actually emerged in the pre-modern Muslim realms (during Islam’s ‘Golden Age’ situated between the 9th and 12th centuries). It was claimed that this was so because Islam was inherently progressive, flexible and did not have a church mediating between God and Man. The thesis then lamented that progressive ideas inherent in Islam were lost, due to the seeping in of conservatism, superstition and myopia – while the West, emerging from the so-called ‘Dark Ages,’ took these progressive ideas up and benefited.
This thesis was also developed to rationalise the political and social adoption of modernity by Muslims. It went on to shape the ideological and/or nationalist character of most post-colonial Muslim nation-states. However, running parallel to this thesis was an equally compelling antithesis. It propounded that Islam’s ‘Golden Age’ was more about the piety and justice of early caliphs and the building of an ‘Islamic state.’ By this, the proponents of this view meant the first governments that came into being in Arabia after the arrival of Islam in the 7th Century AD.
The South Asian scholar Abu’l Ala Maududi was one of the earliest political exponents of this theory. Maududi was not a product of a traditional madrasah. In fact, in his late teens and early twenties, he was a ‘modernist’ who had been mentored by scholars such as Shibli Nomani and Niaz Fatehpuri, who were striving to synthesise traditional Islamic scholarship with the modern European ideas of the Enlightenment. At age 25, Maududi became an admirer of the era’s leading Marxist intellectual in India, Abdul Sattar Khairi, and then befriended the famous progressive Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi. He married an independent-minded woman, Mehmuda Begum, who was educated at a missionary school in Delhi, wore modern dresses and owned her own bicycle! There was no bar on her to wear a burqa.
According to the anthropologist and expert on Maududi’s scholarship Irfan Ahmad, Maududi spent years studying the works of European Enlightenment philosophers, and for which he learned English and German. Maududi concluded that the ideas formulated by modern European intellectuals had contributed greatly to the political and economic rise of Europe. He lamented that Muslim scholarship in this regard was greatly lacking.
Maududi’s turn towards what would eventually become to be known as ‘political Islam,’ and later, ‘Islamism,’ came in the mid-1930s when he began to critique the idea of nationalism that had originated in Europe during the Enlightenment period and was capturing the imagination of India’s Hindus and Muslim intelligentsias. Maududi was critical of the Indian National Congress as well as Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League for adopting this idea. He wrote that nationalism was a secular idea that left little or no room for religion. He complained that the League was therefore a secular “party of pagans” that was promising “an infidel state of Muslims.”
Becoming increasingly religious, Maududi emphasised that, unlike other religions, Islam was “a comprehensive, all-encompassing system in which the state was theologically indispensable.” He argued that the faith’s holy scriptures encouraged the creation of an ‘Islamic state’ navigated by shariah laws and ‘pious’ rulers.
Despite the fact that Maududi was highly critical of the idea of the nation-state and of nationalism, he chose to project the modern concept of the state (linked to the nation-state) back onto early Islamic politics – so as to theorise the reimagining and reconstruction of a bygone Islamic state
Maududi was highly critical of parliamentary democracy, viewing it as an ‘un-Islamic’ enterprise. But there is enough evidence in his writings to conclude that he was fascinated by the modern idea of the state that had begun to develop in Europe from the 18th century onwards. Ahmad traces prominent influences of European scholars, especially Karl Marx and Friedrich Hegel in Maududi’s writings, and how he recast the two’s discourses on state and idealism, to formulate his idea of an Islamic state.
The interesting thing is that not only had Maududi broken away from ‘Islamic modernism’ during his transformation, he had also begun to castigate Islamic traditionalists for “closing the gates of ijtihad” (independent reasoning thorough exertion of a person’s mental faculty). And it was through his reading of Islamic scriptures through ijtihad that he began to project modern notions of the state back to the times of early Islam. He was one of the first Islamic scholars to posit that a holistic Islamic state was enacted in 7th century Arabia, and which was navigated by pious and just rulers. For him, this was a state driven by Shariah laws, justice and moral policing.
Irfan Ahmad in a 2009 essay for The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the late historian Patricia Crone in her book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, demonstrate that the idea of an all-encompassing state is a modern one. They wrote that, in pre-modern times, the state was largely impersonal and its functions were extremely limited. Pre-modern states did not have the capacity to interfere in the lives of the people, other than to simply collect taxes for monarchs and nobles. People were very much left to their own devices, as long as they agreed to pay taxes and did not rebel.
The point here being that the concept of a state that regulated every aspect of life was not fully manifested until the end of the 18th or maybe even the 19th century. And the idea is a European construct, whose fruition was closely linked to the emergence of nation-states. Yet, despite the fact that Maududi was highly critical of the idea of the nation-state and of nationalism, he chose to project the modern concept of the state (linked to the nation-state) back onto early Islamic politics – so as to theorise the reimagining and reconstruction of a bygone Islamic state. This is not to suggest that there never was an Islamic state in the past. But it was like any other pre-modern state, lacking basic infrastructure that the modern states later acquired. According to Ahmad, “(the pre-modern state) did not possess the apparatus to impose a uniform, standardised structure.”
For example, in his studies of Muslim rule in India, the American historian Burton Stein wrote that in pre-modern states, power was segmented between the centre and regional chieftains. These chieftains were largely autonomous and allowed to exercise power whichever way they deemed fit, as long as they recognised the sovereignty of the monarch. Stein therefore described pre-modern states as ‘segmentary states.’
Modernists reminded Maududi that Islamic scriptures were moral guides and not political blueprints to formulate a state. Maududi’s theological opponents, on the other hand, were of the view that he was trying to construct another sect which they mockingly called ‘Maududiyat’
So, the picture of a bygone Islamic state that Maududi sketched was really a 20th-century reimagining of a past based on the modern idea of the state. In the 1930s, caught between the call for a modern Indian state and a modern Muslim-majority state, Maududi formulated the concept of an Islamic state which, he said, would be inspired by a pristine 7th century ‘state’ in Arabia. He called it hakumat-e-Ilahi (God’s Rule, or a Shariah state). Maududi went to great lengths to vindicate the ‘fact’ that Islamic scriptures called for such a state. However, there is only scant evidence in classical Islamic literature to substantiate this claim.
Modernists reminded Maududi that Islamic scriptures were moral guides and not political blueprints to formulate a state. Maududi’s theological opponents, on the other hand, were of the view that he was trying to construct another sect which they mockingly called ‘Maududiyat.’ They also pointed out that he had no degree from a recognised madrassa. And that he was simply a journalist.
Maududi was unhappy that his theories could not get the kind of support Jinnah’s Two Nation Theory enjoyed. Jinnah’s theory was largely based on the economic and political concerns of India’s Muslim communities vis-à-vis India’s Hindu majority. It was secular in the sense that even though it drew the political/nationalist impulse of the Muslim community into the public sphere, it kept Islam’s theological components in the private sphere. Maududi rejected it by insisting that politics was inherent in the theology of Islam. Jinnah and his nationalist contemporaries disagreed.
The poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal had sketched the poetic symbol of a bird of prey (Shaheen) to reflect his otherwise complex concept of Khudi (the self). Khudi was about the crossing of the Rubicon to achieve a heightened awareness of the self (as a Muslim) and in the process becoming a powerful vessel of God on Earth. This was Iqbal’s Muslim Übermensch. Maududi ventured in this area as well, especially when asked who would head the Hakumat-e-Ilahi that he was proposing.
As an answer, Maududi came up with his theory of ‘the great man.’ The ‘great man’ will be a pious man chosen by his equally pious contemporaries. His core strength would stem from his unflinching piety and commitment to protect the religion and the territory of the Islamic state, and to put an end to ‘all evils.’ His basic function will be to foster a balanced system of social justice and encourage every kind of virtuous deed.
According to Maududi, the character of social order flowed entirely from the top down to the bottom. Therefore, the moral and religious qualities of a leader are more important than socio-economic, political and institutional considerations in ensuring the achievement of the goals of the society. To the former Chief Justice of Pakistan and intellectual Justice Muhammad Munir, who was a harsh critic of Maududi, the latter was proposing an ‘Islamic Leviathan’ or a totalitarian theocracy, in which a self-claimed pious man will usurp power to undermine state and government institutions to impose his idea of a devout state.
Maududi’s theory of the ‘great man’ was divorced from the complex political, economic and even theological realities that Pakistan had found itself in after its creation in 1947. It constituted an ethnically diverse polity, and even within its Muslim majority, there were diverse and often competing sects and sub-sects. Maududi’s theory was also egoistical because he had formed a party of Islamic vanguardists, the Jamat-e-Islami (JI), for the purpose of bringing about the pious state. This meant the ‘great man,’ too, was to appear from within this group.
As such, Maududi’s theory in Pakistan could not attract mass appeal or find traction beyond certain urban middle-class circles, even though the party had played an active role in a coalition of parties that had pressed the ‘left-liberal’ regime of ZA Bhutto (1971-77) to concede considerable political space to the Islamists.
JI’s ideologues saw the cleansing campaigns as being according to Maududi’s pursuit of first building a society of pious citizens before fully enacting Hakumat-e-Ilahi. But JI largely became a cultural organisation
When General Zia-ul-Haq toppled the Bhutto regime in July 1977, and declared that he would turn Pakistan into an Islamic state, JI decided to join the military regime’s first cabinet. Yet, Zia was never seen by JI as the ‘great man’ that Maududi was trying to mould. Maududi saw the military take-over as a launching pad for his party to arrive at the ‘great man’ who would form a Hakumat-e-Ilahi.
Meanwhile, Maududi also turned his attention towards Iran, especially when Ayatollah Khomeini rose to establish an Islamic Republic in early 1979. Khomeini, however, was seen by JI as a possible example of the ‘great man’ who was readying himself to form a Hakumat-e-Ilahi. A senior leader of the JI, Mian Tufail, travelled to Iran after an ailing Maududi declared his support for Khomeini. Mian Tufail wrote that Khomeini’s revolution had unfolded on the lines of Maududi’s theories. Maududi passed away in September 1979. But JI continued to engage with Iran’s revolutionary regime. However, by the early 1980s, most JI intellectuals had begun to exhibit their disillusionment by stating that the Iranian Revolution had taken an overtly sectarian (Shia) turn and can’t be emulated as a universal example of Maududi’s Hakumat-e-Ilahi.
JI was of the view that the continuation of Khomeini’s radical Islamist manoeuvres (in the political sense) had increasingly pushed Iran’s post-revolution trajectory out of the orbit of a non-sectarian Islamic realm and towards a sectarian one. According to the late Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad, Iran’s revolution had been achieved by a plethora of ‘progressive’ forces, both Islamic and secular, but Khomeini had managed to outmanoeuvre all other components of the uprising to become its largest figure. So why would he alter his political nature?
It must be remembered that JI has had a rather curious relationship with politics. Maududi was repulsed by modern politics, even though his Hakumat-e-Ilahi was very much a modern political project. But to his intellectual contemporaries in the JI, ‘Islamic Iran’ was, after all, not the kind of Islamic Leviathan that they wanted, and nor its founder the ‘great man’ that Maududi was hoping for – because not much effort or was spent by him to gradually prepare the polity for the final establishment of an Islamic state.
To Maududi, this can only be done by first purifying society from all social and moral ills. Indeed, Maududi did take part in politics, but every major action that his party was involved in — the 1953 and 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya movements; the passage of the 1974 Second Amendment that constitutionally ousted the Ahmadiyya from Islam; and the addition of the death penalty in the country’s blasphemy laws — were all explained as acts of social cleansing.
Also, Maududi’s theory of the ‘great man’ puts so much emphasis on piety and crushing ‘evil,’ that its followers invest more effort in ‘cleansing society of immorality and impiety’ than expanding the party’s political base. Indeed, and again, JI’s ideologues saw the cleansing campaigns as being according to Maududi’s pursuit of first building a society of pious citizens before fully enacting Hakumat-e-Ilahi. But JI largely became a cultural organisation, scouting restaurants, hotels, campuses, TV shows and films, looking for ‘obscenity’ and ‘anti-Islamic’ behaviour that was ‘not according to Islamic culture.’ Maududi was turned into a cultural being, albeit one operating from the other end of conventional cultural activities.
With much of its efforts spent on rooting out ‘bad cultural influences,’ JI, by the 1990s, eventually found itself left behind by more populist political Islamist players and a modern state that usurped many of Maududi’s ideas to remould and recast them as deterrents against possible Islamist implosions.