Nietzsche’s superman, Islam, and Covid-19 ( Part III) – Daily Times

Posted: August 22, 2020 at 2:55 am

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We have further interesting connections in the relationship of Nietzsche to Islam. Like other German philosophers such as Hegel and Goethe, Nietzsche too sought to understand the meaning of life and the place of the human in existence. The ultimate aim was to discover the path to a fulfilled and even contented life. In the process, like the other philosophers, Nietzsche found himself highly critical of the philosophic and ideological structures that dominated Europe and blamed them for the misery of ordinary people. Nietzsche therefore attacked the Christian church and the state. To him, both were sources of oppression. The church had failed to provide happiness on earth to its followers and therefore its rituals were meaningless. While Christians outwardly acted out the rituals of Christianity and religion, they had lost their conviction in the faith. It was this context that prompted Nietzsche to pronounce the sentence that gave him instant notoriety declaring the death of God. As for the state, Nietzsche was an early critic of Otto Von Bismarck, the architect of the German state, which would go on to become the embodiment of the modern state. Nietzsche warned of the centralizing and tyrannizing tendencies of the state which inevitably would show hostility towards ethnic minorities. Nietzsche the philosopher was an iconoclast: both church and state were corrupt and corrupting. In this sense, Nietzsche was ahead of his time and even predicted what was to come in Europe.

Nietzsche attempted to fill the vacuum by arguing for the ideal of the Superman. For him, wisdom and love are key to understanding the Superman. When a person realizes their human potential and fulfills it, they are able to move away from the herd morality of Christianity and religion to become a Superman. It is noteworthy, and could strike the uninitiated as eccentric, that while dismissing Christianity, Nietzsche appears to be constantly praising Islam. For Nietzsche, Christianity and Islam have a perverse relationship in the sense that while he demeans and shows contempt for the former, he turns towards the latter and elevates it. It is a tension within Nietzsche which is not resolved.

For Nietzsche, Muslims are noble and he describes them as manly, life affirming, and honest (the first adjective is from his 1895 book The Antichrist). Nietzsche even points to the warlike qualities in Islam. In fact, there are over 100 references to Islam in Nietzsches work. Islam is simply everything that Christianity is not. He is so enamored of Muslims that in a letter to a friend he ponders relocating to Muslim lands in North Africa. The scholar Ian Almond wrote, it is difficult to resist the tempting hypothesis: that had Nietzsches breakdown not been imminent, we would have seen a work dedicated to Islam from his own pen (Nietzsches Peace with Islam: My Enemys Enemy is my Friend, German Life and Letters, 56:1, January 2003, p. 51).

Nietzsche blamed Christianity in The Antichrist for the elimination of the advanced civilization of Muslim Spain and the Crusades: Christianity destroyed for us the whole harvest of ancient civilization, and later it also destroyed for us the whole harvest of Mohammedan civilization. The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down. If there is any doubt as to his position regarding the two religions, Nietzsche himself dispelled it in The Antichrist: There should be no choice in the matter when faced with Islam and Christianity. War to the knife with Rome! Peace and friendship with Islam!

There are also parallels in the manner in which the idea of the Superman is revealed in Thus Spake Zarathustra and the history of early Islam. As in the case of the Prophet, Nietzsches protagonist in Thus Spake Zarathustra ascends a mountain, acquires knowledge at the age of 40-the age at which the Prophet received his Quranic revelation-and comes down from the mountain with wisdom and love to share and faces hostility and cynicism. In fact, this pattern reflects not only the broad outline of the early days of Islam but that of many Biblical prophets.

It is worth noting that two of Nietzsches Supermen, Goethe as well as Napoleon, expressed their admiration for Islam. Napoleon in Cairo dressed in Arab robes, spent time with sheikhs from Al Azhar, said he had become a Muslim, and even took a Muslim name. Nietzsche, like Wagner, also praised the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, calling him a genius and celebrating the fact that he fought the papacy while seeking peace and friendship with Islam.

Man could aspire to the heights set by the Perfect Man, the model of the Prophet, and Iqbal exhorted his readers to do so

This raises the question as to why Islam impresses Nietzsche so much. I have explored the answer at some length in my book Journey into Europe in which I argued that traditionally some European scholars and philosophers cast Islam and its tribes in the classic romantic mold of Rousseaus noble savage. To them the Muslim tribesman, the Berber in the deserts, or the Pashtun in the mountains, had escaped the deprivations of modernity and preserved their natural and original nobility. This was particularly true of German scholars, who, as I explain in Journey into Europe, thought of themselves as belonging to a kind of tribal society going back to Germanys status as the frontier of the Roman Empire and celebrated the work of Tacitus who wrote of the German tribes of that time. Thus, German scholars were more likely to respect other societies which they deemed worthy and had characteristics that reflected German self-perception. They increasingly set the German people, ethnicity, language, and religious interpretation against the central authority of the Catholic Church based in Rome in forging a distinct German identity and often displayed a concurrent fascination and appreciation for Islam and Islamic culture. Figures like Drer, Goethe, Wagner, and Nietzsche reflected this larger world-view, which I called the historical German soft spot for Islam.

Nietzsche was thus a genuine admirer of a civilization that he knew very little of. In the nineteenth century Islam was going through a difficult period of its history and it had not yet emerged from colonization. It was dominated by often ignorant and decadent rulers and there was chaos and corruption in its societies. Yet Nietzsche and many others romanticized it seeing instead the uncorrupted noble savage. Through such Orientalist eyes the Islamic world though seen as barbarous and anti-modern was yet a praiseworthy society. We see this tendency continuing in Europe as modernity developed into the next century. By the time of Aldous Huxleys Brave New World written some 30 years after Nietzsche died, the most normal character is John who is widely called a savage and lives outside the bounds of the totalitarian World State.

Nietzsche and Iqbal

Perhaps the most celebrated direct relationship of the concept of the Insan-iKamil or the Perfect Man and the Prophet to Nietzsche was highlighted by Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the revered Poet of the East. Iqbal had arrived from British India for his studies at Cambridge University where he was enrolled at Trinity College, after Nietzsche died in 1900. A brilliant student of philosophy, Iqbal very quickly absorbed the leading philosophers of the time including Nietzsche.

Iqbals own work reflected Nietzsche, albeit with a more religious dimension linked to Islam, to the extent that he was accused of plagiarism, a charge that has stayed with him long after his death. Iqbal believed that through the understanding of religion, Man could develop his potential to become the Perfect Man, in short Superman-a Superman whose mind ranged across the cosmos: Sitaron key aageyjehanaurbhihein!/Abhiishq key imtihanaurbhihein There are many worlds beyond the stars!/ And many more tests of love.

Iqbal notes that God himself in the Quran made man in the image of the divine as a vicegerent on earth, a phrase used in the Quran. Man could aspire to the heights set by the Perfect Man, the model of the Prophet, and Iqbal exhorted his readers to do so. We see the religious dimension in Iqbals understanding of self-betterment in the last lines of what is Iqbals arguably most famous populist poems, The Complaint and The Answer to the Complaint. The latter poem has God clearly informing man in the last verses that as long as he is faithful to the Prophet of Islam then everything belongs to him. Ki Muhammad say wafatu nay to hum terayhain/ Ye jahan cheese hay kialuh o kalamterayhain-If you are faithful to Muhammad, than I am yours./ Why do you ask for this universe? I will give you the secret to knowledge. Iqbal thus acknowledged the legitimacy of the Superman while also his connection to God. Whatever Nietzsche thinks of the matter, for Iqbal man cannot break that link from and to God.

The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity

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