Existentialism and Wahdat-ul-Wujood

Left: Mansoor Al-Hallaj, The Muslim Sufi crucified in Baghdad in 922 AD
Right: Albert Camus, journalist, author of The Stranger

Albert Camus’ The Stranger

The Stranger remains the symbol of existentialist novels in the 20th century. This short novel by Albert Camus has Monsieur Meursault as the protagonist which then became one of the most influential fictional figures of the post-war years. The novel is a strong critique to the social and political structures which dictate and control individuals’ morality. I observed how ‘sun’ and ‘hot weather’ remain strong symbols throughout the novel. For example, when the judge finally asks Meursault what were ‘precisely the motives’ for his murderous act, he fumbles and blurts out, ‘because of the sun’[1]. The American preface explains that Meursault is ‘in love with a sun which leaves no shadows.’ Peter Dunwoodie in his preface to The Stranger then adds, “Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and therefore profound passion, the passion for an absolute and for truth’[2].

The important question is what was the ‘truth’ which Albert Camus’s generation of intellectuals significantly realized in Algeria and other African countries of the mid 20th century. Jean Paul Sartre, the biggest name associated with existentialism answers this question by asserting in the first paragraph of his preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “In the colonies, the truth stood naked”[3].

It is in the colonies such as Algeria that western intellectuals were exposed to unbridgeable gap between western idealism and simultaneous denial of humanity. Franz Fanon just exposes that naked truth in his works. As such, the project for existentialist intellectuals was to deconstruct the sacred social and political products of European colonial legacy. Camus’ The Stranger just works effectively to pave the path for a new and neutral debate, primarily based in each individual away from the strongholds of society, religions, and political institutes.

An important point of the existentialist literature is that it engages the ‘wretched of the Earth’ on a whole new term of debate. This atheistic existentialism married with the Algerian anti-colonialism without any affair with Islamic or North African spirituality. As Dunwoodie observes that this perspective of existentialists away from spirituality and focusing on the body has been called ‘neo-pagan’ for ‘turning its back on North Africa’s Islamic cultural heritage’[4]. But it is only on this neutral ground that Algerian Arabs can argue for material equality with no baggage of civilizational, oriental distractors.

With one eye on Yoav Di-capua’s talk on homegrown Arab existentialism this evening[5], I am also wondering if there was a spiritual bridge between these atheistic existentialists and Arab resistors of European colonization. This, at least from the perspective of Sufi traditions of rebellious Wahdat-ul-Wujood which I am a great fan of, and which has among its admirers many Muslim political thinkers, poets, philosophers, and theologists. I cannot decide if 20th century existentialism had any connections Wahdat-ul-Wujood doctrine, but they employ similar nomenclature of wujood and existence. Not surprisingly, both philosophies place human truth and agency in the individual. It shouldn’t surprise readers that Mansoor Al-Hallaj was crucified for he had declared ‘An’al Haqq: I am the Truth’ defying at once the text, the clerics, the kingdom, and the society.


[1] Camus, Albert, and Matthew Ward. 1993. The Stranger. New York: Distributed by Random House.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fanon, Frantz, and Richard Philcox. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Distributed by Publishers Group West.

[4] Camus, Albert, and Matthew Ward. 1993. The Stranger. New York: Distributed by Random House.

[5] “Seminar: ‘Arab Existentialism and the Intellectual History of Decolonization,’ with Yoav Di-Capua (University of Texas, Austin).” n.d. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://mideast.unc.edu/event/seminar-arab-existentialism-and-the-intellectual-history-of-decolonization-with-yoav-di-capua-university-of-texas-austin/.



Nationalism, Decolonization, and the Middle Eastern Studies of Muslim Societies Sajjad Hussain


Mecca of Revolution by Jeffrey James Byrne

In their book “Human Rights at the UN”, Norman & Zaidi[1] offer a political history of human rights and major debates on individual and collective rights. Authors frequently complain of the hypocrisy of the super powers, United States, the British and the Soviet Union, who established the United Nations in a way, so they enjoy maximum privilege and yet, starting 1950s and 1960s, they were shying away from following the human rights rules and laws proposed and approved by the very same UN. What was a missing piece of puzzle for me was what developments were challenging the powers of the post WWII order. I get that answer in Jeffrey James Byrne’s 2015 book “Mecca of Revolution: Algiers, Decolonization, and the Third World Order”[2].

Byrne’s book makes use of the new intelligence and recently available archives on Algerian independence movement. Algerian freedom movement, led by Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), was joined by dissidents of all categories from around the world. Jean Paul Sartre of France, Amilcar Cabral from Portuguese colonies and Franz Fanon from those of France, Ali Shariati of Iran, everyone was involved with Algerian freedom movement. Algeria got its independence from France in 1962 and the emerging government under Ben Bella, even as a government, aggressively continued to advance the cause of Asian-African solidarity, decolonization, and Non-Alignment Movement, which together with similar campaigns for a new world order is summed under the grand project of ‘Third Worldism’. Commenting on the Algeria under Ben Bella, Jeffrey notes, “Algiers quickly became an entrepôt of subversion, where rebels from such places as Palestine, Angola, Argentina, and Vietnam, among many others (including, in time, the Western countries Britain, the United States, and Canada) lived together, con spired together, and vowed to die together.”[3] It was this policy that inspired the nationalist rebel from “Portuguese” Guinea-Bissau, Amilcar Cabral, to approvingly dub the Algerian capital the “Mecca of Revolution”[4], he adds.

On the relationship of Algerian nationalism and the cold war dynamics, Byrne notes how FLN combined components from the liberal ideology of Woodrow Wilson and Leninist guerrilla motivations. It is a shame how the very anti-colonial and internationalist movement eventually resulted in a parochial vision of European statehood. As I read about a revolutionary Algeria going to war with Morocco immediately after its freedom, I was reminded of similar territorial conflicts between Pakistan and India which continues to separate the once-united anti-colonial populace into state-driven jingoism.


Rethinking the Cold War and Decolonization: The Grand Strategy of the Algerian War for Independence – Mathew Connelly

Mathew Connelly’s ‘A Diplomatic Revolution’[5] remains a primary informant on the history of Algerian war of independence. Connelly shows how marvelously the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria used ideological discourse to maneuver its path to independence through the dynamics of the Cold War.

Connelly focuses on the internationalist diplomacy of the FLN and how it employed ideals from both, liberal democracy of the Unites States as well as the anti-imperialist struggle of the Soviets. Caught in the midst of the Cold War, eventually it was ideological contestation rather than militaristic adventures that won Algeria its freedom.

Connelly and Byrne significantly focus on the period of anti-colonial Third World movement that started with Bandung Conference under the aegis of Indonesian revolutionary President Sukarno in 1955. Byrne notes how Byrne’s focus on the FLN movement highlights the ideals of internationalism, Afro-Asia solidarity, and cooperation between the developing countries. Extending the scope of his book to the post-colonial Algeria, Byrne, however, laments the shattering of the Algerian Utopia in 1965. Coups after coups in the revolutionary nations, death of Nehru in 1964, defeat of Abdel Nasser in 1967 Arab-Israel war, left the Third World project with sharp decline, if not death.

Islam Observed: Religious Developments in Morocco and Indonesia – Clifford Geertz

In contrast to the political history of Algeria in the context of the Cold War as done by Connelly and Byrne, Clifford Geertz[6] sheds light on the contemporary development of religion and religious understanding in two countries – Morroco and Indonesia.

A trained anthropologist, Geertz hypothesizes how the historical experiences and interactions continue to inform two similar and yet very divergent Islams in Morocco and Indonesia. He explains how early Islamic interaction with a virgin Morocco resulted in uniformity and simple overtaking of a tribal Islam. In contrast, Islam conversed with readily established Hindu-Buddhist society in Indonesia. Even today, faced with similar questions of religion and religious reinterpretation in the context of modernity, two diverse experiences draw two diverse responses/answers in Morocco and Indonesia. “material reasons why Moroccan “Islam became activist, rigorous, dogmatic and more than a little anthropolatrous and why Indonesian Islam became syncretistic, reflective multifarious, and strikingly phenomenological lie, in party anyway, in the collective life within which and along with which they evolved.”[7] This attempt of understanding Islam and Muslims through the sociology of religion offers new insight compared to the text-based approaches to understanding Islam which has been a major orientalist method.







[1] Normand, Roger, and Zaidi, Sarah. 2008. Human Rights at the UN : The Political History of Universal Justice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Accessed October 4, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.


[2]       Byrne, Jeffrey James. n.d. “Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order,” 409.


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Connelly, Matthew James. 2002. A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[6] Geertz, Clifford. 1995. After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


[7] Ibid.

Busting the Myth of the Muslim World By Sajjad Hussain

Muslim World Aydin

All of Al-Qaeda’s terrorism, NATO’s war on terror, Afghan jihad against the Soviets, Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi’s strive for Islamic caliphate, Muslim Brotherhood’s mobilization in Egypt, Jamat-e-Islami campaigns in Pakistan, or cultural conflicts between European hosts and the Middle Eastern immigrants – everything that today feeds into Samuel Huntington’s prophetic ‘Clash of Civilizations’ was preceded by the idea of ‘a certain Muslim World’. This erratic idea which ignores racial, geographic, ethnic, linguistic, political, socio-cultural as well as theological differences to put one and half billion Muslims from West Africa to South Asia, from Central Asia to the Middle East, into one single united entity, remains largely unchallenged. Cemil Aydin, the Turkish historian of the Ottoman era, takes upon himself to deconstruct this idea and expose how problematic and dangerous this unquestioned notion is. This blog benefits from his book, “The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History”[1].

As an authority on the Ottoman imperial era, Aydin draws on countless instances of the imperial interactions between Turk Ottomans, Persian Safavids, Napoleonic France, Victorian Britain, Russian Czar, Mughals of India which demonstrate these emperors cared little for a global solidarity among Muslims. Aydin points to the fact that Ottomans let down Sultan Tipu’s call for help because Ottoman empire was in alliance with British and Russia against Napoleon’s expanding French empire. Muslim Sultan Tipu was allied with Christian France against Christian British. The same French who were supporting Sultan Tipu in Mysore, India against their fellow-Europeans, were also attacking Ottoman territory in North Africa (Page 14 & 15). Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 is often interpreted by right wing groups in Europe as a war between Islam and Christian Europe. Norwegian murderous, Anders Breivik recalls 1683’s failed Ottoman venture on Vienna and asks Europeans to purge Europe off Muslims by 2083 (Page 29).  Dr Aydin, on the other hands, points to the fact that this Ottoman war against the Hapsburg empire was waged in favor of Hungarian Protestant Christians. As Pankaj Mishra notes in his book, the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, had non-Muslim majority residents.[2] Greeks, Hungarians and East Europeans were part of the Ottoman army and bureaucracy so much so that the very Treaty of Karlowitz to end this era of war was formulated by Ottoman officer of Greek Christian affiliation (Page 30).[3] With several case studies, he demonstrates that our historical understanding of Islam, Muslim, and even Europe is affected by later incidents of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the age of empire, religious identity of ruler meant little for his diverse subjects. Rather than the Ottoman’s treatment of non-Muslims in the empire, it was competing European empires who increased the sense of ‘religious difference’. As Pankaj Mishra notes in his section ‘the sick man of Europe and his dangerous self-therapy’: “Under the longstanding Ottoman millet system, religious communities were allowed a high degree of self-rule… But the capitulations, a system of legal privileges granted to foreigners in the Ottoman empire, made the leading European empires – the French, Russians and British – the formal protectors of ethnic minorities in the Ottoman empire”[4].  Emperors, Muslims and Christians alike, fought each other, befriended each other against a common threat, Muslims fought Christians, Muslims fought Muslims, Christians fought Christians, and even brothers fought brothers. Aydin tracks the genealogy of the idea of global Muslim unity to sometime in the 19th century when early colonial orientalists saw the threat from Muslim empires as emanating from the unique theology of Islam. As famous French orientalist Ernest Renan had put it in his famous talk;

“This bent of mind inculcated by the Mohammedan faith is so strong, that all differences of race and nationality disappear by the fact of conversion to Islam. The Berber, the Sudanese, the Circassian, the Malay, the Egyptian, the Nubian, once they have become Mussulmans, are no longer Berbers, Sudanese, Egyptians; they are simply Mussulmans”[5].

It is, however, important to note that the idea of the Muslim World does not owe its creation only to colonial Europeans. Muslim intellectuals, political scientists, scholars and statemen have actively contributed to notion of the Muslim World, although for opposite purposes.  Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, in his letter to Gobachev, on behalf of the Muslim World offers to fill in the spiritual vacuum of the west (Page 2)[6]. In the face of European domination, Muslim political intellectuals started a process of self-reflection.  With early modernity bringing the technology for quicker travelling and propagating ideas, anti-colonialist Jamal Afghani instigated an intellectual movement calling upon the Muslims of the world to unite. The period between 1870 to the eve of the WWI in 1914, marks that peak era of pan-Islamism when political papers and periodicals started debating ideas of Muslim global solidarity in the face of European colonialism. Intellectual Institutions and political parties were established during that era. All India Muslim League was founded in 1906 that eventually led to a creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims of South Asia in 1947. One good glimpse into that thread of thought is given by Shaikh Mushir Hosain Kidwai’s book on ‘Pan Islamism’[7] published in 1908. I found it very interesting that Kidwai’s book on Pan Islamism far from confirming timeless presence of Pan-Islamist polity, mourns absence of such an imagined unity. Although the author is a staunch supporter of global Muslim solidarity rooted in the faith itself, he consistently laments that Muslims have not demonstrated solidarity, unity in their politics, at least for the last several centuries.

Of the many readings assigned for this week, if there is one lesson to be taken away, it is that the notion of Muslim World is an imagined political construct. This perspective of history is plagued with presentism and serves within a specific colonial and anti-colonial discourse. The irony is that this newly constructed idea has been dangerously held by non-Muslim and Muslim intellectuals alike. What can be a better example of an oppressed community sacralizing a construct of the oppressor? When will we realize that there is only one world, a single world home to all of humanity regardless of all the diversity in our religious, political, and cultural practices?


[1] Aydin, Cemil. 2017. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[2] Mishra, Pankaj. 2012. From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia. London ; New York: Allen Lane :

[3] Aydin, Cemil. 2017. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[4] Mishra, Pankaj. 2012. From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia. London ; New York: Allen Lane :

[5] Renan, Ernest, and William G Hutchison. 1896. The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies,. W. Scott, Ltd. Lecture delivered at the Sorbonne, 29 March 1883

[6] Aydin, Cemil. 2017. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[7] Kidwai, Shaikh Mushir Hosain. 1908. Pan-Islamism. London, Lusac & Co. 46 Great Russell Street

The Heretic Akbar Or The Dogmatic Aurangzeb: Who Is An Aberration? By Sajjad Hussain

Photo credit: Akbar the Great (left)[1] and his great grandson Aurangzeb Alamgir (right)[2]


“Akbar Padishah, reigned with full power for 52 years. He adopted the admirable policy of universal harmony (Sulh-e-Kul) in relation to all the various sects, such as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Dadu’s followers, sky-worshippers … materialists, atheists, Brahmans, and Jain priests. The aim of his heart was to cherish all the people. So, he became all famous under the title of Jagat-Guru, the Spiritual Leader of the World”

(Except from a letter written by under-attack Maratha king Shivaji to Aurangzeb Alamgir)[1]


Pluralism of Akbar who ruled a vast empire stretched from current day India to Central Asia between 1556 and 1605, is well documented. And so is the dogmatic style of governance of his great grandson, Aurzangzeb Alamgir, who ruled this empire for similar five decades a century later, precisely, from 1658 to 1707. While the stark contrast in the levels of politico-religious tolerance shown by these two strong Mughal kings is easy to observe, not many historians have tried to reveal the common social and religious milieu in which these two kings strived for sovereignty and legitimacy. Marked by presentism, orthodox Islamic regulations of the later of the two, Aurzangzeb Alamgir, has in fact been so highlighted to such an extent that Akbar seems an outlier, an exception between the aggressors, the Ghaznavis and Alamgirs. The prevalent notion is that, of the two, Akbar was more challenged by the social and religious traditions of the time. Historian, Azfar Moin, makes a huge effort at suggesting it might be otherwise. “Aurangzeb’s dogmatic regulations against non-Muslims have become legendry – and so caricatured by his modern admirers and detractors that they do not bear repeating. What is worth emphasizing, though, is how little Aurzangzeb was able to change the order of the things.”[2] Azfar claims.

In his book titled, “The Millennial Soveriegn: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam”,  Moin skillfully explains the intertwining of sainthood and political authority of the Mughal kings, something which is less likely to be accepted, let alone approved or contributed to, by the tiers of contemporary orthodox Sunni clerics of India/Pakistan.

Founder of the Mughal dynasty, Zaheer Babur (r. 1526 – 1530), has authored one of the literary masterpieces of the subcontinent. Unfortunately, no manuscripts of Baburnama from the days of Babur who wrote it in Chagatay Turkish has survived today. The official copies we have today are in Persian, officially distributed by his grandson Akbar. However, there are Turklish versions of the Baburnama which were translated from the Persian version a century after Babur. Interestingly, not only this highly celebrated memoir is unfinished, it also has been interrupted by occupying events in Babur’s life. The memoir skips certain years in Babur’s adventurous life during which he might simply have not been able to dedicate time for this authorship. Moin explains, “the later ‘authentic’ Turkish and the earlier ‘official’ Persian versions of the Baburnama correlate well with one another, except for one noticeable difference. This discrepancy is present where the first of three prominent breaks occurs—literally at the margins of the text. The year is 908 AH (1502–1503) and eighteen-year-old Babur is in dire peril. On the run after having lost a battle, the desperate prince hides in a country garden with a few men and sends for help. Soon, however, he senses betrayal and fears that his enemies have discovered his location. At this juncture, the Persian Baburnama  ends abruptly and  skips ahead to the events of the next year. However, the Turkish version continues the story for a page or so before breaking off.”[3]

The added pages in the Turkish version tell how a sacred Muslim saint of Central Asia, Khwaja Ahrar, appears in Babur’s dream and tells him not to grieve for he will be enthroned. Furthermore, as his rivals are nearing, suddenly Babur’s allies rescue him. Upon Babur’s inquiry, they also reveal that Khwaja Ahrar, the same revered Naqshbandi sufi saint, told them where Babur was in need of their help and that Babur was going to be a great king. Azfar Moin agrees with Annette Beverige, an early translator of Baburnama, in that this story is spurious. These pages describe Babur as ‘Padishah’ whereas Babur was not a king then and referred to himself as ‘Mirza’ as Timuris did[4]. Moin assigns himself the curious task of investigating why this particular story was added to the Baburnama. Skillfully, he connects it to the Safavi tradition of Shah Ismai’l who was already a king and a revered saint in Iran. The cult of Shah Ismai’l and the socio-religious tradition of Persianate was so influential that it inevitably affected the Mughals in India.

Contrary to the widening political and cultural gap between current Iran and Pakistan (as representative of the neighboring Muslim of the subcontinent), Safavi Shia rulers of the Persianate influenced thinking of Mughal Sunni elites of India. Humayun, Akbar’s father, was helped by Shah Tahmasb in surviving Uzbeks and subsequently re-establishing Mughal empire. It is worth noting that before jurist Shi’a interpretations took over the Alid sufi tradition in Iran, Safavi traditions promoted a messianic image of the Kings. As Moin explains, “A key belief of ‘exaggerated’ Alid traditions was the transmigration of the soul (tanasukh ), which held that great figures of the past were reborn in present and future cycles of time. Thus when in his poems Khata’i declared himself to be the Divine Truth (haqq), Ali, Jesus, the twelve Shi’i Imams, the assertion was more than metaphorical. Not limiting himself to Arab Islamic figures, Shah Isma‘il also claimed to be an embodiment of the great warriors and emperors of the pre-Islamic Iranian past: ‘I am Faridun, Khusraw, Jamshid, and Zahhak; I am Zal’s son (i.e., Rustam) and Alexander”[5].

Akbar the great was so inspired by the simultaneous sacredness and kingship of Shah Ima’il that he exclaimed, “Shah, either become like me, or make me like yourself.”[6] It is now understandable why Akbar promoted a spiritual order of Din-e-Ilahi beside political power. As Moiz shows, after Akbar and Jahangir, Shah Jahan who was Akbar’s grandson, started to reverse things. Shah Jahan banned prostration of the public to the royalty. He designed a new style for his court where ‘Jharoka’, much inspired by centrality of ‘mehrab’ in the Islamic architecture of the Masjid, replaced King’s throne in the open court. Vegetal, calligraphic, and geometric designs were promoted rather than animal or human figures in the paintings and yet, Shah Jahan was compelled to promote his distinct style of sacred kingship. While banning human figures otherwise, he continued to distribute his miniature to the public. I found Moin’s explanation of this contradiction in Shah Jahan’s art forms pretty convincing. Observing the different but still coherent styles of sacred kingship for Shah Jahan and Akbar he writes, “the protean cult of the holy man from the days of Akbar had been transformed by Shah Jahan into the church of the sacred sovereign”.[7]

Showing how Shah Jahan strived hard but couldn’t come out of the strong tradition of sainthood of predecessors in India and contemporary kings in the Persianate, Moin convincingly demonstrates how it was dogmatic Aurangzeb rather than pluralist Akbar who broke away from the prevalent tradition.

Aurangzeb indeed introduced strict Sunni orthodox regulations of Jaziya (specific tax on non-Muslim) as well as prohibition of construction of Churches and temples. The contrast can also be seen in the titles of his books such as ‘Fatawa-i-Alamgeeri’ compared to previous books of Akbarnama or Padshahnama. But despite (or because of) his rebellion against the socio-political tradition of his ancestors, Aurangzeb was succeeded by great patrons of art and entertainment. Muhammad Shah aka Muhammad Shah Rangeele, who ruled between 1719 – 1748 was particularly famed for his preference for dance, music, and wine. Despite being the last powerful Mughal king, and reputation for military skills, Aurangzeb paid a price for breaking away from the tradition of sacred sovereigns. I would quote a full excerpt from Moin;

“In a letter to Aurangzeb, the Safavid Shah Sulayman (r. 1666–1694) mocked his Indian counterpart’s inability to subdue Shivaji.70 The shah offered to come to Aurangzeb’s aid, just as his ancestor Shah Tahmasb had once helped Humayun regain the throne of Hindustan. This bluster not only embellished Safavid correspondence. It also adorned their halls of public audience. It was Shah Sulayman’s predecessor, Shah ʿAbbas II (r.1642 to 1666), who had commissioned giant wall murals for the audience hall of the Chihil Sutun (Forty Pillars) palace in Isfahan, one of which depicted Humayun at the court of Shah Tahmasb (Humayun is the one seated, left, on the carpet).”


More orthodox and less sacred, Aurangzeb was not only ridiculed by his contemporary Safavid counterparts, but also local rivals as you saw an excerpt from a letter Shivaji, the Maratha kings, right at the top of this long blog. Against the orientalist claims of Islam and dogma being almost synonymous, the question is:  if Aurangzeb was indeed a dogmatic Muslim ruler, how Islamic was the socio-political milieu in which he operated? Moin answers this by showing that it was not the heretic Akbar but the dogmatic Aurangzeb who was more of an aberration.


[1] “Akbar the Great.” 2018. Simple English Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://simple.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Akbar_the_Great&oldid=6245219.

[2] “Aurangzeb Alamgir | Persian Painting | Pinterest | Indian Art, Indian Paintings and Paintings.” n.d. Pinterest. Accessed September 13, 2018. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/282952789070980883/.

[3] Moin, A. Azfar. 2012. The Millennial Sovereign. Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam. New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved 13 Sep. 2018, from https://www-degruyter-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/product/465005

[4] Ibid.

[5] Moin, A. Azfar. 2012. “Peering through the Cracks in the Baburnama: The Textured Lives of Mughal Sovereigns.” The Indian Economic & Social History Review 49 (4): 493–526. https://doi.org/10.1177/0019464612463806.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Moin, A. Azfar. 2012. The Millennial Sovereign. Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam. New York: Columbia University Press. Retrieved 13 Sep. 2018, from https://www-degruyter-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/product/465005


Jamal Uddin Afghani vs Ernest Renan On The Compatibility of Islam With The Sciences


Photo credit: Church and State[1]

“Every person, however slightly he may be acquainted with the affairs of our time, sees clearly the actual inferiority of Mohammaden countries, the decadence of the states governed by Islam, and the intellectual nullity of the races that hold, from that religion alone, their culture and their education”

(Ernest Renan, 1983. Paris)


As I was educated in the public education institutions in Pakistan, the first chapters of our science books, from biology to chemistry, almost invariably explained the strong connection that there supposedly is between Islam and science. Quotations from the Quran, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as well as accomplishments of Muslim medieval scientists formed the body of the first chapter. My teachers were inconsistent in the description of this relationship though. Some would argue the text book authors should not use the word ‘inventors’ for these (or any, for that matter) scientists because ‘creation’ is reserved for Allah. Others were bent upon proving that Islam was the most rational religion, the most scientific, and that current scientific advancements only realize what Islam had already forecast 1,400 years ago. Since not a single question from this chapter made its way into the final exam, a pattern I strategically observed as a student, I was not sure why this apparently short and harmless chapter resulted in such debates.

After reading French orientalist, Ernest Renan’s proposition in 1983 about Islam and Muslims being ‘thousands league from all that can be called rationalism’[2] I realized where the terms of this still ongoing debate come from. Renan threw an intellectual challenge to Muslims scholars by asserting that Islam is incompatible with science, and after 135 year, this debate still continues to draw considerable attention of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of the Middle East and Islam. Scholarly challenged as it is, this style of thinking still continues to form basis for Islamophobia and hence, distort objective understanding of Islam and Muslims not only for non-Muslims but also some Muslim modernists who would argue that an outright rejection of Islam is mandatory before Muslim societies can advance.

Renan expresses his conviction of Islam not as a faith but as a racial construct. “Mohammedan faith is so strong, that all differences of race and nationality disappear by the act of conversion to Islam. The Berber, the Sudanese, the Circassians, the Malay, the Egyptians, and the Nubians, once they have become Mussulmans, are no longer Berber, Sudanese, Egyptians etc.; they are simply Mussulmans”[3], as he puts. As his choice of adverb tells, he is rather simplistic to assume Islam is a magic spell that immediately removes all historical, cultural, and socio-geographical realities. To this generalization, he only treats Persians as exception. This can be explained by Renan’s conviction of Aryan racial supremacy[4]. “Renan had in some ways imposed on the university circles the pro-Aryan thesis of Arthur de Gobineau of the ineptitude of the Semites in arts and sciences”, Guida adds.

When Renan writes a few paragraphs of admission and admiration for contributions of the Muslim scientists between 775 to 13th century, he questions if there is anything ‘Arab’ in them? The only civilizational link between Islam and these scientific accomplishments Renan finds is the Arabic language which he categorically decrees insignificant. Guida is quick to highlight Renan’s double standards since Renan was also a philologist believing in the integral role of languages. “The stress on language is relevant because Renan, as a dedicated philologist, believed that language determines the spirit of its people”, Guida notes.

Referring to the work of medieval Muslim scientists like Al-Kindi, Avicenna, Averroes, Renan cleverly removes this vast bunch of scholars from what he understands as Islam, Muslims, or Islamic. “The splendid advance in learning is entirely the work of Parsees, of Christians, of Jews, of Harranians, of Ismaelians, of Mussulmans in internal revolt against their own religion”, he adds. There is no denial about the effective contribution of ‘committed minorities’ in all societies at all times, however, I would borrow Shahab Ahmed’s argument from ‘What is Islam?’[5] to suggest there is everything Islamic about the most rebellious of these figures. Islam is not merely the text, the dogma, or the Sharia but the society together with all its rebels, the clergy and all their challengers, the rationalists and the conservatives, all are equally Muslim/Islamic.

In response to Renan, I was impressed by the scholarly humility and the arguments presented by Jamal Al-Din Afghani in his rebuttal. Interestingly, Jamal Afghani was in Paris when Prof  Renan presented his thesis. In his rather respectful as well as scholarly answer to the authoritative claims by Renan when he’s discussing a foreign culture, Afghani can be frequently seen using phrases like ‘if I am not mistaken’ and ‘so far as I know’ even though he is coming from that culture. [6] Whereas Renan suggests that a ‘…Mohammedan child … at a blow becomes a fanatic’[7], Afghani refutes by “Muslim and Arab child whose portrait M. Renan traces in such vigorous terms and who, at a later age, becomes “a fanatic, full of foolish pride … belongs to a race that has marked its passage in the world, not only by fire and blood, but by brilliant and fruitful achievements that prove its taste for science..”[8]

Afghani’s strong challenge to Renan comes when he questions his treatment of Islam as a unique faith, different from other world religions. “If it is true that the Muslim religion is an obstacle to the development of sciences, can one affirm that this obstacle will not disappear someday? How does theMuslim religion differ on this point from other religions?”[9], he curiously inquires.

Finally, he nails it down with his articulation: “I cannot keep from hoping that Mohammadan society will succeed in breaking its bonds and marching resolutely in the path of civilization someday after the manner of Western society, for which the Christian faith, despite its rigors and intolerance, was not at all an invincible obstacle. No, I cannot admit that this hope be denied to Islam.”[10]

Other than Jamal Afghani, other Muslim modernists and anti-modernists have also challenged Renan’s proposition. I agree with Guida in that Namik Kemal’s response seems to be rather weak. The essentialist rhetoric of finding support for science and rationalism from the Islamic text seems to be unengaging. In Shahab’s words, it denies historical, political, and cultural realities. It also promotes the idea that there is one genuine Islam which needs to be contrasted with fake versions of Islam, as Guida concludes[11]. Unfortunately, that is how authors of the science textbooks in my home country, Pakistan, continue to think.


[1] N4CM. 2017. “Why Does the Muslim World Lag in Science?” Church and State (blog). November 23, 2017. http://churchandstate.org.uk/2017/11/why-does-the-muslim-world-lag-in-science/.

[2] Renan, Ernest, and William G Hutchison. 1896. The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies,. W. Scott, Ltd. Lecture delivered at the Sorbonne, 29 March 1883

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guida, Michelangelo. 2011. “Al-Afghānī and Namık Kemal’s Replies to Ernest Renan: Two Anti-Westernist Works in the Formative Stage of Islamist Thought” 2 (2): 15.

[5] Muhanna, Elias. 2015. “How Has Islamic Orthodoxy Changed Over Time?” The Nation, December 23, 2015. https://www.thenation.com/article/contradiction-and-diversity/.

[6] Keddi, R. Nikki. 1968. “Imperialism, Science and Religion: Two Essays by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, 1883 and 1884” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968

[7] Renan, Ernest, and William G Hutchison. 1896. The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies,. W. Scott, Ltd. Lecture delivered at the Sorbonne, 29 March 1883

[8] Keddi, R. Nikki. 1968. “Imperialism, Science and Religion: Two Essays by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, 1883 and 1884” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Guida, Michelangelo. 2011. “Al-Afghānī and Namık Kemal’s Replies to Ernest Renan: Two Anti-Westernist Works in the Formative Stage of Islamist Thought” 2 (2): 15


This is yet another highly critical piece which, in a series of similar literature, I find eye-opening and ‘jolting’ as described by Dr Olson. In this article which provides a glimpse of her larger project on ‘Expulsions’, Dr Saskia Sassen of Columbia University explains how we have effectively entered the age of advanced capitalism. What’s important is how Sassen employs the term of ‘expulsion’ differently from ‘social exclusion’. She explains how social exclusion means a phenomenon within the system, a phenomenon decided or controlled by participants and as such open to be ‘reduced, ameliorated or even eliminated’.[1] On the contrary, she employs expulsion to show how systems have developed edges in which poorest and most vulnerable of humans are losing their essence even as consumers or workers. People are pushed to the edges and as such they are surplus. She further broadens this scope and application of this idea to suggest that such negative transformations are taking place in the economic, social as well as bio-sphere.

Dr Sassen elaborates on her idea with data on debts of the countries in the Global South. She explains how one phase of capitalism prepares the ground for the next phase and how advanced capitalism thrives on destruction of traditional capitalism with its Kynesian values. On a different level and coming from a different cultural context, I can see the very focus on humans as ‘Human Resource’ can slowly poison the discourse to focus more on ‘huamns as resource’ than ‘humans as humans’. This takes me back to a series of deep conversations I have had over the past couple of months with Professor Bauman who is seemingly frustrated by the industrial trends in which humans are perceiving nature merely as a ‘resource’.  In our conversations, Prof Bauman and I have questioned the very idea of ‘growth’ vs ‘sustainability’. Removed from the technical discourse, I struggle with ontology and morality of growth. How long can we keep ‘growing’? Doesn’t growth have a limit? Why is ‘GDP growth’ the holiest terms in modern economy? If the law of preservation of mass is valid, shouldn’t growth comes at the cost of inequality? As such, is it growth-in-a-specific-economic-unit or inequality-of-the-overall-system that we celebrate?

My experience with the development sector has familiarized me with the cliché of ‘sustainable growth’. Apparently, ‘sustainability’ has been acknowledged and endorsed as a heavyweight term earning more credibility to the capitalist discourse but I wonder, like a child who lacks articulation but still has his intuition, how long can the oxymoron of ‘sustainable growth’ survive.

[1] Sassen, Saskia. 2016. “At the Systemic Edge: Expulsions.” European Review; Cambridge 24 (1): 89–104. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1062798715000472.


People, Not Shadows


Comment on Jason De Leon’s ‘The Land of Open Graves’[1]

By Sajjad Hussain


Jason De Leon’s book is a recent addition to the scholarship around unauthorized immigrants entering United States of America through its southern porous border with United Mexican States aka Mexico. Acknowledged in 2013 as National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Leon directs a long-term study on immigration on US-Mexico border entitled Undocumented Migration Project (UMP). This book is a compilation of five years of fieldwork in the southern towns of Arizona and northern Mexican towns of Nagoles and Ciudad Juarez for most parts. Trained as anthropologist with particular focus on archaeology, what makes his work enriching the overall discourse in unique ways is that he employs a free range of anthropological tools at his disposal such as ethnography, linguistics, and forensic science in additional to archaeology. He also compliments this study with photoethnography facilitated by his friend and collaborator Michael Wells.

Focused on his aim at exposing how ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ policy employs structural violence that causes painful deaths to thousands of vulnerable travelers in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, heframes his study starting in 1993 when this policy was first employed by Texas and which has gone so far to become a much-preferred federal policy. This book is full of gripping accounts of violence experienced by unfortunate travelers. Going through these accounts, I could relate as conflict and violence has also pushed thousands of Shia Hazara from Pakistan to enter Australia via unseaworthy boats. Those journeys remain even lesser researched and documented. The stories shared by survivors and community members who served as interlocutors are extremely graphic. “When the boats tear down, lucky ones die immediately. Many of those who hang on a plank or life jacket, eventually have to cut their veins with broken pieces of wood to bleed. They cannot cope with extreme thirst, despair, and trauma. As soon as they bleed, large fish come to their rescue.”, described the interlocutor when I met him in July 2017. Currently, there are hundreds of families who have lost theirsons en route to Australia and yet an undiscussed silence of denial rules the community. Privately, aging parents cry and wish for at least confirmation of death of their sons, so they could at least perform due funeral rituals. A tinge of hope continues to elongate their suffering indefinitely.[2]


Note: Photo taken from Dawn.com which in turn credits Hazara photographer Barat Batoor.

As I reflect upon Leon’s book, I admire the essence of documenting what happens on these clandestine journeys. Such projects tendto document an ignored but highly important segment of human history which is of particular essence to those individuals and communities who embark on these journeys.  Future generations can at least turn to some scholarly piece of research and know what happened to their earlier generations. This is a privilege I am not sure if the future generations of my own community will have.

The sole purpose of the study to explain how violence has been strategically employed by federal policy of ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’. While this policy has been celebrated by anti-immigrant populations for declining the unwanted visibility of these emaciated, exhausted, brown skinned travelers in the downtowns across the southern states, and this serves a narrative of ‘mother nature doing justice to those illegal migrants’ far removed from public eyes, Leon challenges the conscience of humanity with full rigor. If the aim of this study is to change the aforementioned federal policy, I am not sure if any piece of anthropology can do that on its own. But one thing this study does effectively is that it challenges the federal policy of employing structural violence to pass without tough questions.

[1] Leon, Jason De, and Michael Wells. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Univ of California Press, 2015.

[2] “Dawn.Com Special: ‘I Am Hazara’ in 2012 – YouTube.” Accessed February 14, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mzczyV-7_8.


Note:  This blog was submitted to Dr Angela Stuesse as a scholar of Global Migration at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill on February 14, 2018.