The “Muselmann” no longer was the master of his own body […] also the spiritual, intellectual and emotional activities decreased radically. [He] lost his memory and his ability to concentrate. His conscience was fixed on food only […] He only realized things directly in front of his eyes and only heard when word were shouted loudly. Without resistance, he was struck and hit. In the final phase, he even did not feel any hunger nor pain any more. The “Muselmann” perished because he could not go on. He was the symbol for mass-dying, a death of hunger, of being left alone, of killing the soul, a living corpse.
Regardless of its original motivations and some possible phenomenological relationships with any observed Muslim experiences in German or Polish thought in the early 20th century, the above depiction of a specific kind of prisoner in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, at least has some startling metaphorical associations with generalized Muslim dispositions. Albeit in a figurative sense, this depiction provides us a literary canvas to formulate an old yet pressing problem, that is, why is it so hard for Muslim societies to come at terms with modernity; or to put differently, why is it so hard to resolve our baffling, and at times tragically mirthful paradoxes, so that the classically ascribed thought structures become consistent with the collective as well as individual experiences of reality?
To rephrase it from another angle, why being children of enlightenment, not only devouring fruits of modernity but holding tightly to them, we are resisting the intellectual renaissance?
What ultimately preoccupies us to generate such strong resistance to reform, giving us a peculiar resigned disposition, where we are desperately waiting for an impending and almost inevitable death in our proverbial Auschwitz? Why we are absolutely contended with our cherished intellectual and social infertilities and not only satisfied, but at times, proud of them too?
I have to accept from the onset that contrary to what might some of my liberal unorthodox interlocutors generally reckon, there is not a straightforward manner to approach this problem. Neither it is simply an issue of so-called regressive versus progressive sensibilities, nor it is merely a matter of authoritative or biased hermeneutics; rather, the locus of the problem lies in the domain of ideas, their history and mobility, how they relate with human experiences, get transformed by them, and if possible, evolve anew.
Just like in Auschwitz, its about our ability or, for that matter, inability to raise our legs and walk forward; to believe strongly that we are the masters of our own body, and that we can shape a new and original Weltanschauung which should correspond to our own experiences of reality, and which must also has the ability to extend outwards from our self and transform the world.
A large part of the problem lies in the inherited cosmologies which are based on a peculiar, and almost pathological, proclivity for an atomistic world-view. The opening lines of publisher’s prologue in a modern translation of Ibn Rajab’s prized classical work  on the realms of Islamic knowledge and scholarship, provides us a showcase for phrasing this essential organic complexity. While challenging an alleged modernist trend in Muslim conception that beneficial knowledge – commendable in the eyes of Allah and His Prophet – includes all the expertise that is beneficial for the society such as commerce, engineering and medicine, it nourishes a perspective where, even though these other forms of knowledge are not despised per se, these are essentially pitted against the true knowledge which is solely for the pleasure of Allah Almighty and ultimate salvation.
Consequently, it is perhaps not unwarranted to claim that a Muslim universe is essentially atomistic, neatly compartmentalized in this-world and next-world. In my view, a world-view with such cosmologies at cornerstones, ameliorated with required scriptural pointers, is just a recipe for resigned psychologies.
But surrender in the domain of ideas is not the only manifestation of this atomism. There is more to it, related to exclusivity, by appealing to some imaginative authoritative structures. Argumentum ad verecundiam.
In this respect, Muslim orthodoxy, with all its shades over the whole spectrum, unequivocally insists to keep religion as a private category much like their Christian counterparts in the middle-ages. Exclusivity is asserted in all its forms. Sect based seminaries and mosques where innumerable versions of the absolute truth are ceaselessly expounded from the pulpit (and now the pulpits over the social networks) by the so-called intellectual giants, and relayed immediately to the community in the streets from the parrots on their shoulders, concocted extracts from the literature employing medieval categories of thought and experience projected as epic literary marvels, or even the bland authoritative usage of scripture for all kinds of social exploitation are various forms of this exclusivity.
The argument appealing from the authority presumes a kind of academic expertise on the part of its proponent, and the orthodoxy is no exception. However, all the tools of exercising this expertise in public sphere, such as reason, criticism and discursive methods are not conformed to any universal academic norms but usually employed whimsically. In this respect, a paradigm is projected where everything in the domain of religion stands established and luminous, all elusiveness or ambiguity toned down as its handling logically belonged to that private domain.
Thus, well understood categories falling prey to these exclusivist percepts tend to loose their original meanings and connote fresh ones. The category of reason, for instance, is transformed to mean the exercise of intellect in conformance with the well placed sectarian structures of thought, rather than an objective enterprise with its inherent limitations; and critique, rather than an all encompassing appraisal resulting from an analytical exercise, is merely boiled down to find a countering ‘evidence’ in the tradition supporting one’s preconceived contention.
Furthermore, the histories and sociologies are also forced to comply with this new paradigm. The texts, individuals and patterns of thought, which are considered non-conformists are dubbed as confusing, based on hearsay, blasphemous or simply nonsense. It isn’t just a coincidence that students in our religious seminaries are not introduced – from compassionate intellectual standpoints for making an effort to understand the other – to other diverse religious traditions as well as varying, and often conflicting, patterns within our own. As one of my orthodox friends puts it, its like ‘exposing young kids to the evils of pornography‘.
In a nutshell, the physiognomy of this proverbial Muselmann, desperately resisting change, is organically paradoxical. That is, being essentially a product of enlightenment he is trying to betray his perpetual experiences by ascribing to a world-view based on some imagined medieval sensibilities; not that these sensibilities were inherently stillborn – rather in many ways vibrant in their own time – but just because it is impossible to ascribe to a world-view beyond our experiences. If not theoretically impossible, it does at least belong to the domain of improbable, and happen to be in such quasi-fictitious company as time travel or transmigration of souls.
Echoing Malik Bennabi’s seminal diagnosis of post Al-Mohad Muslim civilization (with Algeria as test-bed for his sociological studies), its about time, we must ask whether Muslim mind in predominant Muslim societies such as Pakistan, is utterly incapable of generalization?
Does Quran contends unity of self and its holistic experience in the macrocosm, or else an atomistic sensibility where knowledge and experiences are neatly placed in various compartments for this world and the hereafter?
Can orthodoxy continue to meaningfully insist for Muslim thought to be imaginative in some selected domains of ideas and regulate this imaginative exercise through some elusive religious authoritative structures as medieval Christianity (where they were not as elusive, at least)?
To put it more directly, is God simply indifferent as to how we make sense of our world or are there any possibilities of reconstructing a unified universe with God at its origin and Islam as the culmination of evolution of human thought?
- Muselmann definition, Johannes Kepler University of Linz.
- Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, The Heirs of the Prophets, translated by Imam Zaid Shakir.
- Malik Bennabi, Islam in History and Society, edited and translated by Asma Rashid.