Romanticising Irrationality: A Ruinous Idea

Romanticising Irrationality: A Ruinous Idea
Nietzsche’s Hammer 

Those who romanticise irrationality are convinced that rationality works best when driven by ‘evil’ intentions. To anti-rationalists, passion can never exercise rationality quite the same way as devious intentions do. They consider irrationalism as a creative force. At least this was their initial idea, mostly stemming from the works of the controversial 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

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 as 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, fraternity, constitutional government, and the 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.

Enlightenment scholars also powered the political manifestation of ideas such as secularism, nationalism, capitalism, humanism, modernity, and early socialism. They informed the formulation of the politics and economics of the urban middle-classes; and emphasised the supremacy of ‘scientific thought.’

When traditional monarchies, landed elites and the clergy — the main pillars of power in pre-modern Europe — began to be undermined by the Enlightenment, the church responded by reforming itself so that it could stay relevant in the emerging secular and/or ‘modernist’ milieu and context. The majority of Enlightenment thinkers were okay with this. But Nietzsche had a problem. Like the more radical Enlightenment thinkers, he was staunchly anti-religion.


But he was also anti-Enlightenment. He was one of the earliest components of the so-called ‘counter-Enlightenment.’ Nietzsche was an admirer of what he called “Great Politics.” He associated this with the eminent European empires of yore. According to the American historian Richard 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 power, cruelty and the warrior ethos of the empires that he admired.

He despised Christianity for undermining the potential of greatness in men, and for keeping them meek. On the other hand, to him, liberalism and its ideas that were products of the Enlightenment were also 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 who had the will to take the place of God (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. This is exactly what Nietzsche believed he had become. He had crossed the Rubicon. But the result in his case was not wilful greatness, but severe mental illness.

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 a largely imagined ancient Germanic past. A past that the Nazis romanticised as being ‘mighty and glorious.’ The Nazis feared that this past was being entirely buried by the liberal 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). Years after Nietzsche’s death, his writings were distorted by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, to make him seem anti-Semitic. As a result, posthumously, he became a prophet and philosopher of Nazism, an ideology that his sister was an admirer of. However, after Nazism’s collapse in 1945, and the surfacing of evidence of the horrific crimes against humanity that Nazism had inspired, Nietzsche was discarded to the fringes.

Hitler greets Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche

Iqbal’s Ego

Nietzsche’s posthumous appearance was initiated by the mushrooming of ideas that formulated anti-rationalist doctrines of fascism and Nazism. These ideologies understood Nietzsche’s many metaphorical writings according to their own biases. During this period, Nietzsche’s philosophy also influenced various non-European philosophers. One of them was the prodigious South Asian philosopher and poet, Muhammad Iqbal.

In 1908, Iqbal earned his Degree of Philosophy from a German university. Indeed, Nietzsche wasn’t the only philosopher that impressed Iqbal. There were others as well – mostly European. He also admired the 19th-century pioneer of ‘Muslim Modernism’ in South Asia, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and briefly, the ideologues of the modern Turkish nationalism that would go on to overthrown the Ottoman caliphate and give birth to a secular Turkish Republic.
Nietzsche insisted that ‘great power’ can only be had and wielded by men who had the will to take the place of God (who Nietzsche declared as ‘dead’). For this, such men had to ‘cross the Rubicon’ – a metaphor meaning reaching a point of no return

Iqbal’s concept of ‘Khudi’ (the self) and later, that of the Shaheen (falcon) that he developed to symbolise the power of Khudi, were ‘Muslim’ manifestations of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Iqbal was operating in an Indian milieu impacted by the malaise of British colonial dominance, communal violence (mainly between Muslims and Hindus) and a region that had become a complex potpourri of competing ideas. Ideals of Enlightenment introduced by the British were being adopted by Muslim and Hindu intellectuals, and then placed in the context of their respective religious identities. But a vast number of Indians were still following pre-modern traditions.

In his 1930 magnum-opus, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal advocated a radical but rational reevaluation of Islamic thought in his pursuit to make Islam and modernity converge towards a common ground. However, to him, it had to be a ground on which Islam would play a more prominent role, but without dismissing modernity the manner in which Islamic traditionalists were doing. He lashed out at them. The Islam that Iqbal was moulding in this context was bound to upset the traditionalists. It was ‘rational’ and, as he put it, “according to the modern spirit of the times.”

However, Iqbal’s modus-operandi to build this Islam or ‘an Islam for the modern age’ required a special Rubicon-crossing effort to rouse the self or the ego: the Khudi. So, like Nietzsche, Iqbal too advocated a fervid embrace of iconoclastic disposition to differentiate oneself from the lethargy and myopia of the masses. But, unlike Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Iqbal’s Shaheen – that has achieved Khudi – does not become a demigod in a world where God is no more. Instead, it becomes a powerful and creative vessel of God. A vessel whose mission is to inspire its community so that an equally powerful and creative community could be formed.

Muhammad Iqbal

To Nietzsche, Christianity was feeble, weak and an antithesis of individual greatness. To Iqbal, Muslims had become feeble and inward-looking, but not the faith that they followed. To him, this faith was still rooted in thought and action that bring greatness. Iqbal lamented that this attribute had been subdued by conservatism, myopia, traditionalism and superstition.

After his death, Iqbal was idealised in Pakistan by intellectuals on the left as well as on the right. His words inspired the progressive Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, as well as the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the animated founder of the radical Barelvi Islamist outfit, the Tehreek-e-Labbayk Pakistan (TLP).

But whereas Nietzsche was unabashed about being an opponent of both rationalism and religion, Iqbal went back and forth between being a rationalist and a rousing romantic. His philosophical works such as The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, clearly stem from rational points of view; whereas his idea of Khudi emerged from his longing to rekindle a romanticised memory of an age when Muslims were supposedly born with Khudi and lurched forward with tremendous speed and passion towards greatness.


This duality expresses the conflicted nature of the Muslim milieu that Iqbal was a part of. But who in this milieu was he talking to? There was an economic and intellectual Muslim elite that had adopted modernity. Then there was the Muslim ‘masses’ who were largely illiterate. Iqbal was from the aforementioned elite. His rational treatises were aimed at intellectuals and political leaders from his own class because they were the ones constructing a nationalism for Muslims in India as a way to counter Hindu ‘majoritarianism.’ On the other hand, in a bid to connect with the ‘masses,’ he took the romantic route expressed through the masculine symbol of a powerful bird of prey (Shaheen) rising to nest on the highest mountains.

Yet, the urban Muslim middle-classes were the ones who would be roused the most by this imagery. The masses, mostly stationed in rural areas, required something else. They were not moved by Iqbal’s powerful poetry in Urdu and Persian. During the all-important 1946 election in pre-partition India, M.A. Jinnah’s Muslim League, navigated by modernists, outsourced the party’s election campaign in rural Punjab and East Bengal to communists on the one hand, and to fiery Islamists on the other, who had broken away from the anti-League Islamist parties. Also present in the mix were Barelvi clerics and pirs.

In East Bengal, for example, Iqbal’s bird of pray, powered by Khudi, was transformed into becoming a revolutionary (Muslim) worker and peasant battling the injustices of Hindu moneylenders. In rural Punjab, it became a messianic harbinger of an Islamic state rooted in a concocted memory of an imagined Islamic past.

These were rational political strategies constructed to inspire irrational/emotional expectations. Because, neither was the League ever going to enact a socialist system, nor an Islamic theocracy. But the strategy was successful in deriving emotional support from the Muslim masses, especially in the (rural) Muslim-majority areas of East Bengal and Punjab. The votes aided the creation of Pakistan. But the strategy also resulted in ideological confusion that still plagues the politics and polity of the country. This confusion is at the root of Iqbal’s frequent shifts between rationalism, socialist egalitarianism and Islamic romanticism.


Mao’s Impulse

In the 1970s, Nietzsche was resurrected for a another coming. Ousted from German intellectual circles after 1945, he was lovingly embraced by a new breed of young French scholars. A majority of these were once associated with the so-called ‘New Left’ movement that had begun to surface when Soviet troops invaded Hungry in 1956 to brutally crush protests against the Soviet-backed regime in Budapest. New Left leaders and scholars began to intensely critique the politics of pro-Soviet communist parties in Europe, and contemporary Marxism.

Their aim was to refurnish Marxism with issues that went beyond class struggle. They added to it the struggles of civil rights workers, feminists, gay communities, and various other ignored communities. The New Left not only took to task post-War capitalism, consumerism, new forms of US and European racism and ‘imperialism,’ but also lambasted ‘Stalinism’ and/or Soviet communism for being dictatorial and oppressive.
Iqbal’s modus-operandi to build this Islam or ‘an Islam for the modern age’ required a special Rubicon-crossing effort to rouse the self or the ego: the Khudi

The ideas of the New Left were largely expressed during the worldwide student uprisings of the late 1960s. One of the most intense among these was the 1968 student revolt in Paris. For a moment, students dragged the conservative Gaullist regime in France to the brink of collapse.

Instead of marching to the tune of the ageing pro-Soviet communist parties, many young men and women were carrying pictures of the Chinese communist ideologue and leader Mao Zedong.

Mao Zedong

The figure of Mao fascinated the ideologues of the New Left. Mao, after leading a communist revolution in China in 1949, had announced a ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966 to “completely weed out counter-revolutionaries,” not only from society, but also from within the ruling Chinese Communist Party. As a strategy to crush rising opposition in the party against his disastrous and not-very-rational economic policies that had caused widespread famines and millions of deaths, Mao began a ‘Cultural Revolution’ by unleashing mobs of young men and women on the streets of Chinese cities.

Rampaging mobs destroyed properties and people deemed as ‘bourgeois.’ Many party members were killed or committed suicide after being humiliated for becoming ‘decadent’ and harbouring ‘bourgeois thoughts.’ The economy came to a standstill and millions of students dropped out of educational institutions to take part in the carnage. But since the county’s borders were tightly shut to foreigners, much of what came out of China as news was designed to present the Cultural Revolution as an event that had galvanised a whole people to oust clandestine agents of capitalist decadence, manipulative and rigid bureaucrats, and corrupt party officials. What’s more, Mao had also cut ties with the Soviet Union.

Information about the dreadful famines was extremely slow to come out, and so was the news about the anarchy, mob lynchings and economic meltdown caused by the Cultural Revolution. Many young leftist activists and intellectuals outside China gleefully swallowed the romanticised versions of the Cultural Revolution and of its enigmatic architect, Chairman Mao. But by 1970, student uprisings in most countries had begun to crash. In France, the Gaullists were returned to power by the voters who preferred democratic order over ‘revolutionary chaos.’

Many young European leftist thinkers had treated Mao like an Übermensch of the left. A man of impulse and revolutionary creative genius who was inspiring millions of people to smash the tyranny of ‘rational’ bureaucrats and scheming bourgeoisie who were corrupting the 1949 revolution. But as New Left movements began to fail and recede, the horrific truths about the Cultural Revolution began to trickle in. The communist Übermensch was no better than Stalin, Mussolini or Franco. He wanted to hang on to power, even if that meant unleashing mindless mobs on imagined enemies.

A scene from the Cultural Revolution

From the derbies of the New Left emerged disillusioned thinkers such as the French philosopher Michel Foucault. He would become one of the most influential components of a broad intellectual movement dubbed ‘postmodernism.’ There were others as well, mostly stationed in France. Postmodernism had its immediate roots in the New Left that had vehemently criticised products of ‘western modernity’ such as capitalism, imperialism and the suffocating ‘conformity’ imposed on societies by ‘rational bureaucracies’ serving the ‘ruling elites.’

The New Left was ‘new’ because it was equally critical of old-style communism. It was felt that Marxist discourses needed to go beyond class struggle. They needed to incorporate a plethora of other issues as well such as racism and gender inequality, and US and Soviet imperialism.

To the New Left, Mao had become a symbol of an organic, as opposed to a statist, form of revolutionary communism standing up to both US and Soviet imperialism. Alas, as Mao’s Cultural Revolution spiralled out of control, and the international student uprisings of the 1960s failed, former intellectual enthusiasts of Mao launched an attack on him. However, very few of them actually denounced the violence that Mao had unleashed. Instead, to them, just like Western capitalism and Soviet communism, Mao too was a product of modernity and yet another evil exponent of political rationality.


Foucault’s ‘Spirituality’

In their analysis of the failed uprisings of the 1960s, men such as Foucault eventually went back to Nietzsche. As a young communist in the 1950s, Foucault was already fascinated by various counter-Enlightenment ideas. Finding Soviet-style communism and contemporary Marxism ‘sterile’ and stifling, Foucault quit the French communist party. He embarked on a search to look for men who were willing to push the limits of rationality and transcend the established ideas of ‘sanity.’ In his first major work, 1961’s Madness and Civilisation, Foucault posited that the idea of mental illness was a social construct that was wielded as a tool to exclude those who refused to conform to the established ideas of rationality that were developed by the Enlightenment philosophers to monopolise the definitions of sanity and madness.

Foucault was teaching at a university in Tunis when student protests erupted in Paris in 1968. But he was a keen witness of student protests in Tunis. On his return to France, while comparing both the protests, Foucault confessed that he had found the Tunis protests to be more organic because the participants were confronting a dictatorship that was more violent than the Gaullist regime in France. Foucault was impressed by the collective passion of student protesters in Tunis. He saw the same passion being enacted in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

As Mao came under increasing criticism in the West for flouting human rights and instigating violence, Foucault declared that the idea of universal human rights was meaningless because the concept of rights changed from culture to culture. He wrote that ‘specific philosophers’ were needed to explore specific cultures and specific truths. This was, of course, an attack on the whole idea of universal truths and the concept of the universal principles of human rights that were products of the Enlightenment. A rejection of the concept of universality in this regard would become an important plank of postmodernism, replaced by the exploration of specific understanding of specific cultures about their specific ‘truths.’

Fascination with Maoism among many European intellectuals increasingly fell away. In fact, by 1977, when the last remnants of the 1960s radicalism had called it a day, Foucault suddenly became a champion of universal/international human rights. Thus began a shift in European left from eulogising those who had crossed the Rubicon and inspired millions to partake in acts of collective passion, to becoming relativist cultural beings, detached from Realpolitik and divorced from ideologies weaved from ‘meta-narratives.’

Nietzsche was given a makeover. It is true that Nietzsche was never anti-Semitic and that his writings were distorted by her sister after his death to make his ideas fit Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, there was always enough in Nietzsche’s writings to inspire acts of genocide, tyranny, the creation of a ‘master race’ and a relentless war ethos. The German historian and philosopher Earnest Nolte wrote in his book Nietzsche und Der Nietzscheanismus that one shouldn’t be surprised that Nietzsche was moulded into a prophet of sorts by the Nazis.


Yet, such disturbing realisations were casually sidelined by the early harbingers of postmodernism. Instead, during his second coming, Nietzsche was venerated as a thinker who was ‘anti-politics’ and an ascetic who was raging against the corruptions of modernity and the hypocrisy of both religious as well as secular morality. If so, then what exactly did Nietzsche mean by ‘Great Politics?’

To Foucault, the answer came in the shape of the 1979 ‘Islamic revolution’ in Iran. Whereas he almost completely ignored the leftist Sandinista Revolution of 1979 in Nicaragua that had toppled a corrupt US-backed dictatorship, he exhibited extraordinary interest in the events that led to the fall of another US-backed tyrant in Iran. The fallen tyrant was the monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

During the latter half of the Cultural Revolution in China in the early 1970s, Foucault had become fascinated by Mao and ‘Maoists’ because they reminded him of the Tunisians who had ‘fearlessly’ given their all to dislodge a ‘modernist’ dictatorship in Tunisia. Their movement failed, but Foucault was all praise for them, even though he lamented that they had continued to revere the kind of Marxism that Foucault and the New Left had rejected. In Mao, Foucault saw a man who had pushed the limits of rationality, and in crossing the Rubicon, had laid bare the tyranny of the sterile and conformist notions of ‘Western modernity’ and the statist rationality of Soviet communism.

By the late 1970s, New Left ideas had all but dissolved into becoming postmodernism. Early postmodernists began to look for inspiration outside the contexts of Western thought, and communism. Being relativists, they scoffed at the universal notions of rationality and truth, insisting that every culture had its own truths produced by its 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 constructed and monopolised by the Enlightenment and the West and peddled as being universal. No wonder then, Foucault fell head-over-heels over men such as the charismatic Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini and those who followed him.

Nietzsche may have been anti-religion, but in one of his most compelling works, 1883’s Thus Spoke Zarathustrait was a ‘prophet’ (Zarathustra) who had ‘taught the coming of an Übermensch.’ An ‘overman’ who will rise to fill the void created by the ‘death of god.’ He would devise a new system of morals that would not be weighed down by Christian beliefs and values, nor by the ‘humanitarian’ principles of the Enlightenment which, to Nietzsche, were just another form of religious morality, devoid of passion, greatness and creativity.

The importance of God and Church had begun to recede during the outbreak of the Enlightenment. Modernity in this respect reached a peak in the mid-20th century. However, by the 1970s, religion was making a comeback. Especially in the Muslim world. Foucault and his early postmodernist contemporaries began to perceive the Übermensch as a spiritual being.
It is true that Nietzsche was never anti-Semitic and that his writings were distorted by her sister after his death to make his ideas fit Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, there was always enough in Nietzsche’s writings to inspire acts of genocide, tyranny, the creation of a ‘master race’ and a relentless war ethos

In South Asia, Iqbal had taken Sir Syed’s line by suggesting that Islam was modern long before Europe became modern. He then created the concept of Khudi to formulate the idea of a new Muslim man, who would become the master of the self by overcoming the pragmatism of ‘Muslim apologists,’ the dogma of Islamic traditionalists, and the follies of those who had killed their faith on the alter of European political and cultural constructs. Iqbal’s Shaheen symbolised the new Muslim man who truly manifested the belief that god had created man in his own image. To Iqbal, the first such man was Islam’s early holy figures. They needed to be emulated. But Iqbal insisted that this was not possible without first achieving Khudi.

Foucault travelled to Iran in September 1978. There is no evidence to suggest that he was familiar with Iqbal’s writings. But he closely studied those of the Iranian scholar Ali Shariati. Shariati is widely hailed as the father of Iran’s 1979 revolution, even though he died two years earlier. He was suspected to have been poisoned by the Shah’s secret police. Shariati was an admirer of Iqbal. He had written a whole book on Iqbal’s philosophy just before his death in 1977.

Iran, August 1979: the revolution eating its own children

Shariati was not a cleric. In fact, just as the New Left had done in the West, Shariati reworked Marxism so it could be liberated from dogma and was able to address wider range of issues. Shariati did this by expressing reworked Marxist ideas in the language of revolutionary Shi’ism. He projected these ideas as being already present in the events of the ‘Battle of Karbala’ (680 CE) when Husayn (AS), the grandson of Islam’s prophet (PBUH), refused to give allegiance to the caliph Yazid because Husayn considered him to be a tyrant and a usurper.

A small army led by Husayn was surrounded and slaughtered by Yazid. The massacre shaped Shi’ism as we know it today. But according to Shariati, the revolutionary and defiant spirt of Husayn were toned down by Shia monarchs and by the clerics on the payroll of the monarchs.

Khomeini adopted Shariati’s narrative and worked it to mean a passionate and fearless uprising against the ‘tyrant’ and ‘usurper’ (the Shah) that would establish an Islamic theocracy navigated by ‘pious men’ (such as himself). This was Khomeini’s interpretation of Shariati. But the fact is: this was a Shia version of what Sunni Islamists such as Pakistan’s Abul Ala Maududi (d.1979) and Egypt’s Syed Qutb (d.1966) had already conceptualised as a way to oust the Enlightenment/modernist and Marxist ideas that had become prevalent in Muslim societies and were supposedly eliminating the supremacy of Islam.

Foucault intensely studied the ideas of Shariati who was referencing Iqbal’s idea of Khudi; and/or a powerful self-realisation that would lead to a new understanding of Islam as being a viable political and spiritual means to a revolution. It was the spiritual bit that fascinated Foucault the most. To him, Christianity had been overcome by secularism because it became decadent and corrupt and devoid of any spirituality. This, to Foucault, had left the rational West ‘spiritually bankrupt.’ But now, here he was in a non-Western country, watching a mighty revolution unfold that was being inspired by what Foucault called ‘political spirituality.’ In a way, to Foucault, Khomeini became this revolution’s Übermensch.

In his writings from Tehran, Foucault claimed to be witnessing the birth of powerful ideas that Western intellectuals had not known about or had thought did not exist. As he saw Khomeini push the limits of rationality and cross the Rubicon in declaring the creation of a theocracy that had shunned secular ideas from both the left and the right, Foucault wrote that this had the potential of creating ‘new forms of creativity.’

He excitedly declared that ‘political spirituality’ had the potential of destroying Western philosophy and even engulf Western politics that had been under the sway of Enlightenment ideas for far too long. Foucault did not hide his enthusiasm of being at the epicentre of a revolution, which he claimed was unlike any other. To Foucault the revolution was a passionate onslaught against the idea of modernity that had been imposed on non-European and ‘spiritual societies’ such as Iran.

This is interesting, because to the famous Pakistani intellectual, late Eqbal Ahmad — who, unlike Foucault, had actual participatory experience in a revolution (in Algeria) and was a consummate activist-academic — the Iranian revolution was not made by ‘anti-modern fundamentalists.’ In a July 1979 essay, Eqbal wrote that the revolution was in fact one of “the most modern and objectively advanced revolutions in the Third Word that was led by progressive Islamic forces against despotism.” Indeed, Eqbal agreed that there was a large anti-Western dimension to it, but added that “the emergence of Khomeini as its largest figure only came after the revolution took power.”

To Eqbal it was ‘progressive Islamic forces’ (such as Shariati) who had inspired the revolution. Eqbal wrote that Shariati’s ideas had managed to unite varied components from the left and the right against the Sha, but that, Khomeini had managed to outmanoeuvre and oust all other components to establish himself at the top after the Shah was toppled.

Foucault came under increasing attack by his contemporaries in the European intellectual circles for being swept away by the flood of emotions that was sweeping the streets of Iran. Some of his most vocal critics were Western and Iranian feminists who warned that the revolution would increasingly take a ‘fundamentalist’ turn and spell disaster for women. Khomeini was preaching a return to an idealised pre-modern past. Foucault was okay with that because romanticised pasts had also attracted Nietzsche who saw great empires thriving in them. Yet, Foucault had only surface knowledge of a (largely imagined) pre-modern past that the Islamists had begun to peddle from the mid-20th century onwards.

Like earlier counter-Enlightenment thinkers, Foucault too had come to romanticise the ‘passion’ (untempered by reason) of pre-modern societies and was excited to see it return in the shape of the 1979 revolution in Iran. He saw it as a creative force.

But he suddenly went quiet when news of mass executions and oppression of women began to pour out of Iran. The experiment of rebelling against modernity through pre-modern impulses that Foucault excitedly saw taking shape in Iran, had become as violent as the modernity he was raging against. What’s more, his sudden silence got quieter when the theocracy that Foucault’s spiritual Übermensch had constructed, began to also systematically execute gays. Foucault was a declared homosexual.

Foucault had been taken in by the nostalgia of a romanticised past that he, or those promising it, were never a part of. We have seen this happening over and over again after the 1970s, especially in Muslim-majority countries: nostalgia of a romanticised and misconstrued past offered as a solution to a complicated present.


Maududi’s Utopia

The disasters of Mao’s Cultural Revolution brought forth a realisation among the remnants of the New Left that, Mao was as prone to exercising violence to make his ideas become accepted uncritically, as were the ‘cynical’ and rational components of the modem bureaucracy and capitalism.

According to Wolin, disillusioned leftists, as a refuge, began to engage with the works of Nietzsche. Nietzsche had declared himself as a great visionary whose work could only be grasped by future generations. But when he was resurrected 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. To the postmodernists, the 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 postmodern. An influential Muslim scholar too would (uncannily) become a cultural being, even though his ambitions were entirely political. His name is Abul 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, they strived to prove that inherent in their peoples’ faith and nationalism was a modernity and rationality that was more progressive and organic than the ones introduced by the colonialists.
To the famous Pakistani intellectual, late Eqbal Ahmad — who, unlike Foucault, had actual participatory experience in a revolution (in Algeria) and was a consummate activist-academic — the Iranian revolution was not made by ‘anti-modern fundamentalists.’ In a July 1979 essay, Eqbal wrote that the revolution was in fact one of “the most modern and objectively advanced revolutions in the Third Word that was led by progressive Islamic forces against despotism”

Between the 19th and mid-20th centuries, various Muslim nationalist intellectuals constructed a body of work to posit 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 between God and man. The thesis then lamented that, due to the seeping in of conservatism, superstition and myopia, progressive ideas inherent in Islam were lost to the West when the latter was emerging from the so-called ‘Dark Ages.’

This thesis was also developed to rationalise the political and social adoption of modernity by the 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 in the early and mid-7th century.

The South Asian scholar Abul 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 had been striving to synthesise traditional Islamic scholarship with the modern European ides of Enlightenment.

According to the anthropologist and an 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 now capturing the imagination of India’s Hindu and Muslim intelligentsias. Maududi was critical of the Indian National Congress as well as the Muslim League for adopting this idea. Maududi 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 nominal 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 encourage the creation of an ‘Islamic state’ navigated by shariah laws and ‘pious’ rulers.

Maududi was highly critical of modern 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 Marx and Friedrich Hegel, in Maududi’s writings and how he recast the two’s discourses on state, idealism and dialectics, to formulate his idea of an Islamic state.

The interesting thing is that not only had Maududi broken away from Islamic modernism, but 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. A state driven by Quranic decrees, justice and moral and political policing.

Irfan Ahmad in a 2009 essay, and the late historian Patricia Crone in her own right, demonstrated 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 the society is not more than 400 years old. This concept was not fully manifested until the end of the 18th 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 to early Islamic politics and polity to construct a memory of a bygone Islamic state. This is not to suggest that there never wasn’t one. 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.”
Khan, too, crossed the Rubicon - by kicking aside notions of ‘good’ political conduct, ‘acceptable’ language, and established notions of ethics. To him his ‘cause’ was bigger than these

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 saw fit, as long as they recognised the sovereignty of the monarch. Stein therefore called pre-modern states ‘segmentary states.’

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). Maududi went to great lengths to substantiate the ‘fact’ that Islamic scriptures called for such a state. However, there is little evidence in classical Islamic literature and commentaries that substantiate this.

Modernists reminded Maududi that Islamic scriptures were moral guides and not political blueprints to formulate a state. Maududi’s theocratic opponents, mostly Deobandi ulema, were of the view that he was constructing 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.

There was nothing irrational about Maududi trying to construct a political ideology. He had made certain ‘historical’ and contemporary political observations and through these established certain ‘facts’ from a point of view of an ideal for which he laid down a roadmap (to reach). The process was rational. But like Iqbal, Maududi too found the narrative of his ideological construct too complex to trigger widespread traction.

Maududi was unhappy that his theory of ‘hakumat-e-Ilahi’ could not get the kind of support Jinnah’s ‘Two Nation Theory’ enjoyed. This 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 out the political/nationalist impulse of India’s Muslim community into the public sphere, it kept Islam’s theological components in the private sphere. Maududi rejected this by insisting that politics was inherent in the theology of Islam. Jinnah and his nationalist contemporaries disagreed.

Iqbal had sketched the poetic symbol of the Shaheen to reflect his otherwise complex concept of the Khudi and in the process created a Muslim Übermensch. Maududi ventured in this area as well, especially when asked who would head the hakumat-e-Ilahi that he was purposing. As an answer, Maududi came up with his theory of ‘the Great Man.’ This ‘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 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, Maududi 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 irrational because it was divorced from the complex political, economic and even theological realities that Pakistan had found itself in after its creation in 1947. It was also egoistical because Maududi had formed a political party, the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) for the purpose of bringing about the pious state. It was a consciously elitist group of theocrats. This meant the ‘Great Man’ too was to appear from within this group.

Whereas Maududi’s theory in Pakistan could not attract mass appeal or find traction beyond certain urban middle-class circles, he started to take interest in the events that began to unfold in Iran in the late 1970s. The JI had played an active role in a coalition of parties that had pressed the ‘left-liberal’ regime of ZA Bhutto to concede considerable political space to the Islamists.

When General Zia toppled the ZA Bhutto regime in July 1977, and declared that he (Zia) 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 being the ‘Great Man’ that Maududi was trying to mould. Initially, 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 seen as a universal example of Maududi’s hakumat-e-Ilahi.

So, Islamic Iran was, after all, not the kind of ‘Islamic leviathan,’ and nor its founder the ‘Great Man ’ that Maududi was hoping for. And since Maududi’s theory of the ‘Great Man’ puts so much emphasis on piety and crushing ‘evil,’ its followers put more effort in ‘cleansing society of immorality and impiety’ than expanding the party’s political base.

Indeed, JI’s ideologues saw the cleansing campaigns as being according to Maududi’s pursuit to first building a society of pious citizens before fully enacting hakumat-e-Ilahi. But JI 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 the more populist Islamist players and a modern state that had already usurped many of Maududi’s ideas to remould and recast them as deterrents against possible state-threatening Islamist implosions (à la Iran).


Romanticised Irrationality: The Khuda Mard of Pakistan

In the late 1930s, young Islamic scholars Abdus Sattar and Ibrahim Chishti published a pamphlet called Scheme. In it they put forward the idea of a ‘Khuda Mard.’ This Übermensch was to appear after the Muslims would ‘cleanse’ themselves from within and ‘renew their mission for world domination.’ The Khuda Mard had no issues in calling people of other faiths, ‘worse than animals.’ Sattar and Chishti issued maps, flags and an image of the Khuda Mard mounted on a white horse and standing on top of a globe.

The idea of the Khuda Mard was a manifestation of a man who has crossed the Rubicon by rejecting all prevailing notions of morality and rationality to reach a state of being in which he was  entirely driven by the impulse and passion of creating a new system of morality without any guilt, remorse or even common sense.

Guilt, remorse and common sense are treated by him as weaknesses that have neutralised his masculinity which calls him to mount a horse and conquer the world so it could be transformed into becoming pristine and noble again as it once used to be centuries ago. But the fact is, the ancient world was brutal, superstitious, infested with diseases and abject poverty. But to the Khuda Mard, as it was to Nietzsche’s Übermensch and Maududi’s ‘Great Man,’ a more glorious ancient past did exist. And if it didn’t, then it needed to be created as a memory.

This cosmetic memory was to be enforced and reinforced over and over again until it begins to be perceived as an established ‘fact.’ The ‘fact’ was then to be used as an example which the Khuda Mard can create a new reality with. It won’t be a recreation of the romanticised past, but a contemporary manifestation of it. For this to happen, actual facts need to challenged, demonised and ultimately destroyed.

Z.A. Bhutto

This is a rational political ploy which uses romanticised irrationality to grab state power. People forgot about Scheme. But the aforementioned idea in it almost unconsciously seeped in the political consciousness of various political leaders in Pakistan. Pakistan’s founders were clearly repulsed by such ideas. They understood Islam as a rational creed that was compatible with the philosophies of the Enlightenment. Yet, in the Punjab during the 1946 elections, the Muslim League tactfully allowed some of its leaders to paint Jinnah as a fearless Islamic sage complete with a flowing white beard, who was battling anti-Islam enemies to create a ‘new Madinah.’

Even though secular and invested in socialist ideas, former Pakistani PM ZA Bhutto was fascinated by the above-mentioned imagery and ploy. To challenge the boundaries of conduct set by the rational bureaucracy, state and the ‘modern’ and ‘respectful’ segments of the society, Bhutto changed the way politicians were expected to speak in public. He began to shout. He used crass language, mocked, demonised and threatened, often replacing the three-piece-suits that he loved to wear with a simple kameez-shalwar.

This not only disturbed the ‘gentry,’ but Maududi as well. Maududi’s idea of the Great Man was entirely different than what Bhutto was exhibiting. The Great Man was quiet, pious, reflective and wise, and yet stern and decisive when it came to punish immorality or vanquish the enemies of Islam. Maududi immediately declared Bhutto to be a charlatan and a communist/atheist who was posing as a messiah in a Muslim-majority country.

Bhutto retaliated by declaring Maududi as an agent of capitalists and feudal elites. Bhutto then claimed that his socialism was simply a modern manifestation of political, social and economic systems formulated by the early caliphs of Islam. In a a way, this was exactly what Maududi’s Great Man was supposed to do as well, but Bhutto hijacked this narrative and gave it a more populist twist. It put it in a context in which to say this he didn’t need to look the part. No beard was required, no exhibitions of piety, no restraints on the manner in which he spoke at rallies, nor on the intrepid manner that he carried himself in public. This was the formulation of a political religion that did not necessarily require an overt exhibition of religiosity.

Bhutto crossed the Rubicon by dashing many established notions of political conduct and expression, and by replacing religiosity with certain politically-motivated ‘Islamic’ ploys enacted to blunt the criticism that he wasn’t pious. Piety to him was a demonstration of weakness. Politicising religion, on the other hand, was apparently a bold move. Maududi’s Great Man wanted to politicise Islam as well because he believed politics was inherent in the faith. But the need to be visibly pious meant he would remain conflicted between political amorality and religious morality.

Bhutto and the authors of Scheme undermined religiosity and ritualism but emphasised the political-emotive attributes of faith and mythologised narratives to enchant a polity that modernity was attempting to disenchant. Bhutto was a political enchanter and began being seen as a messiah by the poor caught between modernity and religiosity.

Unlike Bhutto who had quickly made several enemies in the military establishment, within various state institutions, and among the industrial classes and the middle-classes, Imran Khan was overtly supported by each one of these. His turn towards the romanticisation of irrationality was mainly due to the fact that his party dwarfed in influence compared to the rational/pragmatic electoral might of the much larger parties.

In the 1970s, Bhutto had signed off on certain controversial laws and decrees that he claimed would serve Islam in Pakistan. He did this after gauging an increase of interest in Islam in the Muslim world when the long-standing project of modernity began to collapse. Bhutto looked to usurp this increasing interest before his Islamist opponents could. He thought he could bag votes from the right as well as the left. In the end, though, both largely abandoned him. But then, crossing the Rubicon always comes at a cost.

Khan, too, crossed the Rubicon - by kicking aside notions of ‘good’ political conduct, ‘acceptable’ language, and established notions of ethics. To him his ‘cause’ was bigger than these. The cause being to make Pakistan the kind of a welfare state that dominated secular Scandinavian countries in the 20th century because apparently, the secular Scandinavian welfare states were actually built on the model of the earliest caliphates of Islam in Madinah.

During the Bhutto era, exhibition of piety and religiosity were not very common in society so it was easier for him to undermine these and emphasise the more political aspects of the faith. But decades later, by the time Khan rose to power, exhibition of piety had established itself firmly and even developed a particular look. So whereas Khan was more interested in flexing the current strands of political Islam, he found the need to couple these with ‘Islamic’ paraphernalia such as carrying praying beads, getting himself photographed while praying, and dotting his rhetoric with holy verses from the Islamic scriptures.

Imran Khan

To his core constituency, the urban middle-classes, he became a lovable mixture of modernity, piety and bravery. They do not see any dichotomy in the mixture. To them it is strung together with seamless ideas because one idea leads to the other. For example, his claim to create a state on the model of the 7th century ‘Islamic state’ is a ‘progressive’ initiative because modern European states had adopted the same model. This is rubbish, of course. But it is a fascinating notion which managed to oust and replace the more dry competing ideas, no matter how factual they were.

His anti-West tirades include what has now become a cliche: ‘The West has become spiritually bankrupt.’ It was popularised by Foucault, but mostly absorbed by Islamists and then by middle-class Muslims at home and abroad. Hindu gurus of the 1960s and 1970s travelled to Western countries to spiritualise disenchanted Western men and women (for a fee, of course). Some Muslims also travel and stay in secular Western regions to do the same, but their target largely are Muslims living in Western countries who they want to socially and psychologically ghettoise so that they do not fall away from their faith.

Khan spent most of his time in the UK. He too has evolved the manner in which a lot of Pakistani Muslims have in Western countries. From being lifestyle liberals to desperate identity-seekers who found an ‘Islamic’ identity from a potpourri of Western postmodernist ideas. This identity is thus self-oriental, meaning that it is adopted and exhibited to differentiate itself from ‘Western’ identities but looks and sounds exactly like how new Western orientalists often frame a Muslim.

Such identities did not originate in Pakistan. They were transported to Pakistan and spread quickly among middle-class Pakistanis. The transporters include Pakistani scholars in Western countries who are more invested in identity wars there than in the complex tensions prevailing in their home country.

Khan with his charisma, his carefully crafted image and his brazen disregard for rational politics has become this identity’s poster boy. He not only demonises his political opponents and fearlessly spout over-the-top claims that have no factual basis, he is out to usurp every strand of political Islam that is out there as a way to become the great Muslim. He is marching further in after crossing the Rubicon, breaking idol after idol as he goes.

But the problem is: he wants to be the only idol standing.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.