Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Romantic Will (continued)

I've been in Syria for the last three weeks--in case anyone's been wondering (good luck!) where this Romantic Will business was headed. I went for the fun of it, with no specific objectives, but soon began trying to learn as much as I could about the early history of the Islamic Caliphate--a subject very remote, it would seem,from the history of the Romantic Will in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though I suppose that in itself may be worth remarking on: that is to say,nothing remotely comparable to the deification of the individual self and its absolute or utopian demands that we encounter in 19th century Romanticism, is to be met with in the history of Islamic political thought. So? (you ask); but romantic ideas and attitudes are still operative in the west, still a source of misleading expectations... Consider now the fundamental characteristics of Islamic religious practise (I quote now from a book by Bernard Lewis [no relation]): "The interior of the mosque is simple and austere. There is no altar and no sanctuary,for Islam has no sacraments and no ordained priesthood... Muslim public prayer is a disciplined, communal act of submission to the Creator, to the One, remote and immaterial God. It admits of no drama and no mystery, and has no place for liturgical music or poetry..." This disciplined ritual of submission to the will of God is to be repeated five times a day,according to the Koran. Not Romantic self-assertion, but submission. Anyone who wants to understand the basics of how we in the West differ from the peoples of the Islamic world, would do well to consider this distinction.

Lao Qiao asks if suicide bombing has any precedent in Islamic history. The Assassins of the 11th-12th centuries were professional killers who made something of a cult of close-in dagger work; it seems to have been a point of honor not to survive their victims, who were all public figures. The Assassins were not indiscriminate killers; the killing of innocent people to make a political point seems,therefore, to be unprecedented--in Islamic history if not in our own: terroristic attacks on the civilian populations of enemy cities were carried out by both sides during WW II.

Lao Qiao also wonders when and why women were made to dress like nuns. (What follows is guess-work.) It's all about honor—-male honor. It may be that Arab culture is not careful to distinguish between thoughts or intentions, and actions-- especially when women are likely to become an object of male attention. Women, it is assumed, are only too naturally apt to get sexual pleasure out of a male glance. For a man to look at a woman with desire, therefore, is tantamount to rape or seduction as her family sees it—-the ultimate dishonor. Female sexuality, then is the original source of disorder, the uncontrollable mystery that must somehow be controlled—at any cost.

1 comment:

  1. I'm curious about the history of the Caliphate. Was the glory of achieving martyrdom part of the culture? Was there anything at that time that resembled suicide murder? Did you learn when it became the rule for women to cover their faces? Is there any pre-Islamic antecedent for this practice that you know of? I have read the Koran, but I don't think I learned enough from reading it to know how much Islamic culture has evolved through the centuries.