Will and Power

2005-01-03

Immediately after the destruction of the World Trade Center, there was much hand-wringing and analysis regarding the nature of Islam (I did my share back in October 2001). Since then I've read a great deal on the history of civilizations and cultures. When one understands how distinctive Western civilization is in human history, one comes to see Islamic civilization in a new light. In that spirit, here are some quotes from Carroll Quigley's Weapons Systems and Political Stability on the nature and history of Islam (the quotes are a bit repetitious, most likely because Quigley did not live to finish this manuscript, but are fascinating nonetheless).

We have already indicated that the development of men's ideas on the nature of deity passed through numerous stages over two millennia, from about 1500 B.C. to about the time of Muhammad. Of these stages we have mentioned the beliefs that God was: (1) omnipotent; (2) one; (3) transcendental; (4) good; and (5) love. Of these fives stages, Allah, the God of Muhammad, had only the first two, a deficient version of the third, and little of the last two. Allah was One God, the Only God, and Muhammad was his last and final prophet. This God was omnipotent, the essence of Will and total Power. Since everything that happened was a consequence of his will and could just as easily have been otherwise, there were no rules or law, in the cosmos. Everything was totally entangled in the Will of Allah, which was Fate. The mission of man was not to exercise freedom or growth or to develop his potentialities, but to submit totally to God's will. Such submission was "Islam."

Man had free will and thus was responsible, in the sense that he could submit to God's Will or defy it. But, since the universe was a reflection of God's Will (which was totally free and unhampered), there were no rules or laws independent of God. Accordingly, there were no distinctions of good and evil. God was not under any ethical constraints and the ultimate rule of the universe was still power (even if God's power) and not law. Thus individual growth in personal freedom and responsibility under law was not possible in the Moslem system. Those who submitted to God's Will were rewarded in Paradise; those who violated His Will burned in Hell. [703-704]

And [714-717]:

The achievement of Muhammad was very great, but the whole subsequent history of Islamic civilization was marked by his errors and omissions. Most of these rest on his very backward conception of the nature of deity and of the relations between God and man. His God was not fully transcendental since He constantly interfered in the world, and indeed, had to interfere in order to keep it going, for Muhammad had no conception of natural laws. His God was a God of supreme power, but was not transcendental or good. Thus the failure to recognize the nature of law as a process of relationships which function apart from the constant personal intervention of God included the failure to recognize rules of ethics (which included God). This meant that God was not recognized as Good but only as Power. To some extent Muhammad did reach the idea of God as love but only in the rather limited form of compassion. This involved divine recognition of man's weakness and pity toward man for this reason, but did not involve the love of God in the Christian sense which includes God's wish that man should develop his potentialities toward strength.

All of these weaknesses in Muhammad's ideas of the nature of deity continued in Islam and left it a permanently flawed society. It left an idea of the nature of man as weak, with limited free will and thus a limited sense of individual personal responsibility (since freedom for man allowed only the acceptance or rejection of the Will of Allah and rejection was punished by God's retaliation in the Last Judgment by inflicting personal suffering on the sinner).

This failure to achieve any idea of law as a relationship higher than will influenced every aspect of Islamic life subsequently. Among other things it prevented any real idea of the rule of law or of a constitution. This lack was made worse by the fact that Muhammad established no rules of government or of succession to his office. His own rule was personal, reinforced by his claims to be the Messenger of divine revelation. This meant that his successors, however chosen, would have to rule personally, without his power, since revelation, according to Muhammad, ended with him. Thus Islam, unlike western civilization, never could achieve the latter's idea that "the truth unfolds in time." In Islam "the Gates of Truth" were closed and, in consequence, a very unfinished community had to be regarded as finished, just as a very unfinished idea of the nature of deity had to be regarded as finished.

This idea of truth as finished was crippling to many aspects of Islamic society (such as science, law, and politics), and became especially crippling in the extreme form it took in Islam with the establishment of the idea that the Koran, as the vehicle of revelation, was not only sufficient, complete, and finished, but was also uncreated (that is had existed with God in all eternity before it was revealed to Muhammad). This had the effect of putting Truth outside the world of space-time (the world of created things), leaving this temporal world the area of evil in an almost Zoroastrian sense. All of these beliefs served to discourage human effort to improve this temporal world or their own behavior in it. This dualistic tendency, which was one of the outstanding characteristics of the whole period covered by this chapter, was also observable in the late classical civilization, in Byzantine civilization, and in western civilization in this period, as well as in Islam.

Thus we have a very flawed heritage left by Muhammad as in Islamic civilization because of three omissions (failure to move from a universe of will or power toward a universe of rules and law; failure to establish rules of government, or at least of succession for the ruler; and insistence that his ideas of deity and human relationship with deity were the final truth, thus ending revelation and intellectual growth). But Muhammad also left a positiive decision which was more obviously and more directly fatal to the future of his community. This is his decision to support the religious community by raiding, plunder, and war.

The whole future of Islamic civilization was marked by this decision which eventually made it almost impossible to achieve a community, for the two were almost antithetical: that the community be based on religion (that is on persons who trust each other because they have the same God and the same relationship to Him) and the belief that that same relationship can support itself in this world by plundering and enslaving other persons. This cannot be done, simply because the effort to support any community by war creates a military machine which comes to dominate the community on a basis totally different from the religious basis on which it is presumed to rest. In Islam, centuries of confusion were spent in conflict over the vain effort to achieve a government which was simultaneously both military and religious. The very effort to do this gave rise to extremist religious sects who, as microscopic minorities, were determined to get control of the government. Other sects, despairing of this, tried to withdraw into a small segregated community of their own. The Kharajites were an example of the first, while the Assassins (Ismailites) were an example of the second. The final solution of the problem, which grew very slowly in the period 900-1300, was to abandon any effort to combine the umma and the militarized government in the same community. This was equivalent to permitting a government which was little more than a military machine over a community which was a structure of private relationships operated as a community under customary relationships among individuals and groups.

This solution was well adapted to the socio-economic conditions of the period, especially to the autonomous nature and stable structure of economic (especially agrarian) enterprise at that time, but it was not a system which could adapt to modern conditions because the ruling entity, under this Islamic compromise, was a government without being a state; it was in fact a military organization and little else. It was not a state because it did not control and hardly influenced justice, law, education, social life (including family life), economic affairs, or intellectual and religious life. As a largely military machine it did not have, and could hardly expect to obtain, loyalty from its subjects or their active or spontaneous cooperation.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal