Tuesday, February 14, 2012

God's Angry Madmen

Navid Kermani is a wonderfully creative literary critic and historian specialising in Arabic and Persian literature of the classical period. His earlier work on the aesthetics of the Qurʾan was an excellent contribution to the field of Qurʾanic studies (Gott ist schön: Das äesthetische Erleben des Koran, Munich: Beck, 1999). The present book under review is a challenging and timely intervention in contemporary thought, analysing the important, most neglected and much reviled tradition within monotheisms of the literary revolt against God, the complaints and litanies of ‘speaking truth’ to the ultimate power, that is the divine, exemplified in the biblical story of Job and in the medieval example of the Muṣībatnāma of the famous Persian poet Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (d. c 1221). It was originally published in German in 2005 (Der Schrecken Gottes, Munich: Beck) resulting from Kermani’s tenure of a fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and the translation is fluent and very readable.

The fundamental problem of evil, the existence of both natural disasters such as earthquakes (natural evils) and of moral failures such as genocide (moral evils) have since, at least, the Enlightenment provided the primary argument against the existence of God, or a singular deity. Arguably, polytheisms, whether henotheisms or at the minimum non-monotheisms, have less of a problem here – failings of a human, supra-human and natural kind can be explained by the existence of different and even squabbling gods – even the Qurʾan recognises this aspect of a non-monotheistic order even if it regards it as a fault. Monotheisms tend to see themselves, or that is what the main narrative seems to suggest, as singular discourses of the power of a God-King whose tyrannical diktat cannot be violated. This idea of the divine could be construed from the divine names themselves that are depicted in the calligraphies at the beginning of each chapter: al-qahhār, the subduer; al-ḍārr, the afflicter; al-khāfiḍ, the humiliater; al-makkār, the cunning; al-jabbār, the compeller; and al-muqtadir, the dominator. But he is also the merciful and the lover – this contrast between the just and wrathful God and the merciful and loving lord is a central tension within monotheism.

However, monotheisms also produce the faithful believer who rails against God, a Job, a Kierkegaard, and even a Christ on the cross – a figure who in the midst of trial and tribulation cannot stay silent because he believes. In Islam, we tend to prefer the faithful submitter – and yet forget, at our spiritual and intellectual peril, the one who will not remain silent. We prefer the pious to be good and to keep their silence, and not to be loud and contrary because of the virtues of thankfulness and patience, in the words of the Qurʾan in sūrat al-Baqara, verse 155: ‘But give glad tidings to the patient, who surely when they are visited by an affliction say, ‘surely we belong to God and to him we return’, upon them rest blessings and mercy from their Lord, and they are verily the truly guided’. Kermani’s real contribution is to relate this tradition of revolt which is fairly well known and discussed within western Judaeo-Christian theologies and literatures to a similar stream within Islamic and especially Persian thought taking as his example the twelfth century liminal poet ʿAṭṭār of Nishapur. He could also have selected other figures such as the poets of the classical period such as al-Maʿarrī (d. 1058), or Sufis contemporary to ʿAṭṭār such as ʿAyn al-Qużāt Hamadānī (d. 1131) or Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240), or even more recently poets such as Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938). Atheism is just a brief step away, a careless neglect and silence and inability to rail against one whom one denies – and a generation or two ago the late ʿAbd al-Rahman Badawi (d. 2002) wrote a preliminary history of atheism in Islam which remains unsurpassed. Ultimately, one only reproaches the object of one’s love. The book comprises five tightly argued chapters. The first begins with the problem of Job, of the suffering brought upon by the inexplicable wrong of children dying, a personal account of the author’s own experience and moving towards an introduction to ʿAṭṭār himself. It introduces the central conception of God as good, omnipotent and knowable – and with these three key attributes lies the problem of evil and how it can be reconciled with such a God. The second chapter shifts to a discussion of the text at the centre of the book, the Muṣībatnāma. The third chapter deals with the theology of suffering and fear, examining both the notion that God in unfathomable and hence suffering a mystery, as well as the idea that God himself suffers that arises in more modern Catholic (von Balthasar and Kasper) and Protestant (Barth and Moltmann) theologies. Leibniz (d. 1716) struggles to articulate a theodicy (literally, how God can be just in the presence of evil), thinkers attempt to make sense of the pivotal Lisbon earthquake of 1755, both of which put together Voltaire mercilessly satirises in Candide. The Augustinian tradition finds comfort in original sin and the fault of the human while extolling the salvific power of grace, most Muslim theologians take the course of agnosticism, but ʿAṭtār prefers an honest cry against the divine, acknowledging the terror of God and his ‘cunning’ (makr). God’s cunning, and seemingly arbitrariness, is clear even in the very premiss of the Job narrative, namely Satan’s bet with God. A secondary motif of the chapter is to argue for the need to acknowledge that there is a plurality of interpretations within Islam even, and especially, with respect to views on the nature of evil. The fourth chapter on the rebellion against God weaves together the Job story and motif with ʿAṭṭār. Contentment and trust are contrasted with vexation and quarrelling – anger at God is a sign of love reciprocating torment, which is, in itself, a sign of divine attention. As such, Kermani provides an argument against those searching for free thinking in Islam, like Sarah Stroumsa, who cannot countenance the slightest revolt or criticism – and indeed many a modern Muslim theologian would similarly be baffled by the pious indignation and frustration of ʿAṭṭār’s ranters. The final chapter then tries to articulate this theme into a counter-theology, recovering a lost tradition that is of benefit for us in the modern age to find our believing selves and allow for the possibility of venting our frustrations, impieties, and frailties against the ultimate alterity of God. The argument is brought full circle – it begins with the story of the author’s uncle and ends with him and with the ultimate response to human frailty that we come from God and return to him, the pious and yet even impious istirjāʿ. In the presence of hope, there is always faith; hence no need for a conclusion as such.

Well-conceived and argued, one cannot quibble with the odd fault here and there in the book’s production. It would be interesting to see whether we can find the continuation of this counter-theology or rather counter-narrative on evil in the modern period, and one suspects we should start a modern history of it with Iqbal and poets and thinkers of the early twentieth century and take it up to the present. Can our modern sensibilities allow for an intelligent, deeply impious piety that rails against God because it affirms his existence and the return of the cosmos to him without falling into fatuous arguments about blasphemy and punishment for thought and speech crime? The embrace of confusion and eschewing the certainty beloved of theology is a courageous position that is rather difficult to sustain. Highly recommended (to use the cliché), The Terror of God is an excellent exposition of the problem of suffering and how monotheists not least Muslims have attempted to make sense of it without denying their own humanity and without letting God off the hook.  The success, and hope of salvation, of being lifted from the confusion of the world with its evils that we wish to flee is evoked with the brilliant final verse of the text of ʿAṭṭār in which the confused and lost bedouin addresses God: take me by the hand, if you can, and deliver me from the confusion, as if nothing had happened (mītavānī gar ze chandīn pīch pīch, dast-e man gīrī va angārī kē hīch).  

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