Serving History

Iqbal went to Europe in 1905 in the steps of another beloved teacher, Thomas Walker Arnold of Government College in Lahore. Arnold was a historian of Islam and Islamic art. He was a great friend of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who had helped found a new college at Aligarh in 1875 on the model of Oxbridge . . . . [Arnold] had introduced Iqbal to Western oriental scholarship on Islam and now helped him further his studies abroad in Cambridge, Munich, and London. . . . Iqbal dedicated his PhD dissertation to him. Researching Islamic mysticism in these settings, while reading Goethe and Nietzsche, whose own work was shaped by interest in ‘the Orient,’ Iqbal became convinced that mysticism had no real foundation in original Islam, that it was alien and even unhealthy. He became interested in ‘real’ Islam’s potential as a social and political organization. . . . In 1909, he thought of the British Empire as embodying the antinational, universalistic political ideal of Islam.

And yet, while embracing the empire, he at once disavowed the historical narratives that were its justification. The empire was framed as a mechanism for unleashing the moral consciousness of nationhood around the world. But Iqbal’s sensibility was not historical in this worldly sense. As the historian Faisal Devji has argued, Iqbal’s was not a ‘properly historical inquiry’ into Islam but a search for a ‘constitutional model for a future society freed from its grandiose past,’ like republican Rome in the West. He admired the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose work was just then also shaping mystically minded British venturers to the Middle Eastern deserts. If Bergson’s ideas depended on long European engagement with ‘oriental’ thought, now they resonated with Iqbal in Europe. He, too, rejected the notion of uniform, serial time that was the medium of history and rejected national history — the raison d’être of modern historicism and its accompanying notions of time. Islam’s origins therefore were not something consigned to a past that was past in serial time but might yet constitute a future.

After the First World War, Iqbal emerged a critic of empire. By demonstrating nationalism’s destructive effects, the war redoubled his determination to think outside that box. . . . In modern nation-states, the material and spiritual realms were divided — the one worldly, the other otherworldly. Ethics had been split — the preceding chapters are evidence of how worldly systems of ethical accountability ushered in by the Enlightenment’s historical sensibilities subverted the call of religiously grounded or more transcendent understandings of ethics. . . .

His 1915 poetic work in Persian, Asrar-i-Khudi (Secrets of the Self), reprised the theme of the divine spark animating each human self, the realization of which is the evolutionary journey of every life. Man’s capacity to act in the world, an echo of the divine capacity for creation, is central to this self-realization. As he put it in a well-known couplet, ‘Amal se zindagi banti hai jannat bhi jahannum bhi / ye khaki apni fitrat mein na noori hai na naari hai’ (‘Through deeds life becomes Heaven and Hell / this earthly being is by nature neither full of light nor full of fire.’) It is a less gloomy appraisal of human nature than Kant’s notion of crooked timber; more importantly, it spells out Iqbal’s sense that the ‘world’ the human creates through his actions is a subjective one. Iqbal’s sense of human capacity and duty to act is as strong or perhaps stronger than that of the most zealous great-man theorist of history, but, crucially, the aim of this action is not to change the world and times outside but to become self-conscious — an internal transformation.

The present post is kind of an addendum to the last, this one prompted initially by Yale’s starting to release Timothy Snyder’s undergrad lectures on Ukraine week by week as the course is being delivered this semester. (A little unusual, though not unprecedented, for the Yale channel. In any case, no-brainer sort of choice from the digital-media point of view. Snyder’s very popular and the topic is of course a hot one. The lectures are getting lots of hits.) I’m not going to comment on them at length, but I do want to pick up on a couple of hard-to-ignore points of intersection with what I was about here at beginning of the month — just when the lectures began to be posted but before I’d listened to any of them.

To be very clear, my interest here isn’t so much in Ukraine and the warfare under way there, though that is obviously matter worth paying close attention to, worth worrying about, if one’s in a position to do so. I’m continuing here rather to think about questions Kathryn Gin Lum’s mid-August thread on Twitter raises for me — particularly though not at all narrowly: What might a ‘Christian view’ of history and time be?

Half of Snyder’s semester opener is devoted, in no way surprisingly, to something he spends a lot of time talking about also to other audiences in our moment marked by the Republican Party’s elevation to political importance of third-rate celebrity tycoon and less-than-fully-focused late-blooming authoritarian-aspirant Donald Trump. Snyder wants to establish with his undergrads from the start what it is that all should agree qualifies as an historical account of things. What is history ‘about’? What it’s not about is really what he’s going for here, and he gets right to it. History’s not about the inevitably recurring, the always-has-been, &c. You aren’t doing history, he says, if it isn’t about ‘change and continuity’ and ‘ends and beginnings’ and, further, ‘things you couldn’t expect.’ Where such a thing as ‘history repeats itself’ gets a foot in, he clarifies, what diminishes, what’s necessarily being excluded, is the principle of human agency’s reality. An account of things happening in time in which the part human agency must be seen to take has been cut (or by some measure too seriously undercut, let’s maybe say) isn’t in fact historical. It isn’t history but something else.

What’s history about?

Well, there’s a degree of correspondence to be discerned between what Snyder says one’s account of the world has to allow for to be regarded in common terms as history and what Lum’s thread calls ‘a Christian view of chronology,’ isn’t there? I don’t want to make too much of this. That’s partly just because however direct and assertional they appear to be in the respective (very different) settings of their statements, neither is perhaps especially clear finally about the thing asserted. You don’t want to dig too much in what somebody’s said for meaning and shades that aren’t there to be found. Still, that it looks, at least, like their treatments of the idea of the historical have overlap from opposed positions is interesting.

Like James Sweet, I think we can say with some confidence, Snyder would reject being characterized as someone who thinks especially Christianly about time and the historical. Possibly what Lum really intends shouldn’t be taken to mean that avowals of the kind we hear from him in this lecture do just reduce to ‘Christian view,’ moreover. This is fuzzy for me. What I can’t help thinking about, in any case, is the ready affirmation that denials of being a holder of Christian views you might expect him to make would be getting from some of the people I know who most dislike him — hate him, even.

But hang on, before we get to hating Tim, we should notice his second lecture, which goes so nicely with a few of the strands of thought twizzling through the previous post, but perhaps especially with the material of Sam Aronow’s Jewish history series episode on Hegel’s children and stage-setting for Zionism. Not that Snyder gets into any of that very directly! But the period is so messy and so easily caricatured, and both Snyder and Aronow want to reveal it from less-familiar angles, via less-familiar characters. Snyder and Aronow are alike in understanding, too, or anyway in wanting to move their audiences to some greater appreciation of, the problem of historical thought as itself historical subject pushing to the fore in social consciousness of the Europe of the period. In which I guess there’s nothing uncommon — Lum’s thread likewise turns naturally to this idea, notice for instance — but which here deserves attention, I expect, for their in some ways comparably attempting to make the long involutional shift vivid, to give it sound and color.

What’s ethnos but a second-hand emotion?

Something which, it may be observed, to an extent distinguishes Snyder’s approach to rendering nineteenth-century Europe’s increasingly historically self-conscious intellectual culture vivid in that second lecture particularly is that he’s frequently referring you to how you’re habituated to thinking, he’d wager, about your own world today (as a person born since the turn of the millenium, probably in America, and finding yourself through one path or another a student at Yale, among other matters of choice and circumstance). Chances are good it’ll occur to us right away that this is the kind of connecting one aims to achieve as a certain kind of conscientious teacher, simply, and that the material Snyder happens to deal in is here in some respect beside the question. We might also be prompted at this consideration, however, to remember James Sweet and Lynn Hunt.

It’s a measure of how truly bad that column of Sweet’s is that he never so much as nods in the general direction of Snyder, who’s at least as much the figure of exalted notoriety to illustrate the degraded condition presentism can bring a soul to as a Hannah-Jones, Coates, Alito or just about anybody else we could name and is, by the way, actually a leading representative of the profession Sweet’s ostensibly criticizing and making appeal to. I have to confess that this fact didn’t hit me until last week. It led me, though, when it did, to a good Chronicle of Higher Ed read by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins from two years ago. (Email me if stymied by paywall there, and I’ll send you the article.)

Steinmetz-Jenkins’ piece in turn led me to Priya Satia, whose Time’s Monster, nearing publication when he wrote, mentioned just at the end, is really sort of the subject of this post, though I don’t have a lot to say about it at this point. I’m about half-way through (listening on Scribd) — or only a little beyond where the excerpt I begin with above lands in it.

More than Snyder’s lectures, I want to recommend checking out Satia’s conversations about her book to be found via search. (Scribd, in addition to being somewhere to find the book itself, is a good place for finding these.) This one’s very good, I think:

Liberal imperial world a complex of paradoxes, you say?

Let’s come back to hating Tim, then! That won’t actually be to set Satia aside, though, but rather to spring off a bit — just a bit — from the story she’s telling. The thing I want to bring in in briefest possible terms is some hint of the kind of resonances you might be able to spot between the Enlightenment-skeptical post-imperialism of India’s Europe-acculturated Muhammad Iqbal as portrayed in Satia’s passage above and ideas percolating through, reaching even to badly educated Evangelical cultural defectives like me !, across the board in popular American conservatism — religion-formed conservatism particularly, I mean — in the latter half of the Cold War period until today, my lifetime (and Snyder’s incidentally — a year older than I). An expression of this linkage or sympathetic movement, much attenuated and befogged perhaps, appears in Francis Schaeffer’s enormously successful pop Western Civ and apologetica for Protestants. (I had a senior-year class at the Baltimore church-based school I graduated from, titled ‘Sociology’ for who knows what reason, with fully half the year devoted to How Should We Then Live, just over a decade in publication at the time. Completely opaque in its utter wooden simplicity, in my recollection — though I took it very seriously, as far as I knew how to do.) Humanity cut off societally from fullness of reality, with its consequence in ethical nullification and collapse; the rogues’ gallery of cultural figures (Kant!) whose published errors acquire sweeping explanatory significance for later events; Enlightenment and Revolution as Devil’s bargain and precipice at which the civilizational chance to check decline is lost — for people like me, elements like these had already taken vigorous root in foundational story, had already begun to be givens, even while JFK’s inaugural, say, was fresh memory for most Americans and Air Force men in pressure suits were leaving bootprints in lunar dirt. In a certain way, of course, it’s needless to elaborate much about how the impact of the recasting then apparently a tentative turn among North American Christians of the twentieth century is now felt.

In recent years, my circles have been with people who might actually claim synthetic thought like Iqbal’s as something in many respects concordant with varieties of Christianity they espouse — who could acknowledge, indeed, as American Evangelicals in contrast will as yet only very rarely do, affinity with or even indebtedness (via e.g. Charles Péguy) to a Bergson. [⁠ ⁠update ( sep. 21 ) : Pretty good here as an accompanying listen, this from the Hermitix podcast, from last week.⁠ ⁠] In the thinking of some like this, Timothy Snyder can figure as nothing but a face for what Satia’s story of Western modernity in development refers to as liberal imperialism, evolved now for a world shaped by the global reach principally of American rather than British military and policy force. It’s not ‘presentism’ they’re outraged by (though folks like this can find reason to take offense at a 1619 Project, for instance, readily enough). Their alarm rather is at what they recognize, not always with great accuracy but by no means in my judgment only ever confusedly either, as spiritual vacuity and the structures of power that depend upon and, worse, foster and cultivate it in mass-societal forms. For my part, I think those of this mind who’ve come to see Snyder in such terms have probably got him pretty wrong. But this of course isn’t the place (and I’m probably not the person) to try to make a case on his behalf. It’s worth adding, possibly, that Snyder and other smart and well-rewarded folks like him often seem to live sufficiently insulated lives that taking care to avoid, in the course of their various attempts to wield influence to worthy ends, being perceived the way they can be by the kind of religious person of wider learning (if not always of sharpest insight) I have in mind will never be much of a priority.

I’ll keep thinking about what Lum’s getting at. Learning of Satia’s book is both a great help in this and a sort of proof to me of the good in having been about it. There’s no Christianity without interest in, without becoming invested in(to), some sensibility of deep historical transformation as fact and with that, probably, community in some process of supra-individual deepening in historical (self-)awareness. That seems straightforward enough to me. Is there on the other hand anything in the world to which we might with confidence assign in a general way the label ‘Christian view of history’? This is another problem. It’s a problem I’m sure, anyhow, that people like Lum are right in pushing us to look not only to views from within Christian community and continua but also to views from without for making sense of.


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