paleo Ideofact

Saturday, August 10, 2002
 
Context
In my ramblings through the Internet, I came across a site that reminded me of something one of my favorite writers, Zbigniew Herbert, cited towards the end of an essay. He wrote
Paracelsus said the creation of the world by God had been left uncompleted. Mankind is called upon to complete this act of creation. I consider this a very beautiful, humanistic belief.
I found the idea troubling when I first read it several years ago, despite my admiration for Herbert. And, were more men like him, perhaps the idea wouldn't cause me so much discomfort.

He was born in Poland in 1924, and died just a few years ago. In a six year span, he went from Poland to the Soviet Union to the German Government General to People's Poland -- all without leaving his home in Lwow. After World War Two, he was a member in good standing of both the Polish Writers Union and the communist party; he went to see an experiment in forced collectivization himself and was so appalled that he turned in his party card -- he went down to the bottom, in his own memorable phrase.

It was not just his personal history that I found moving, but also his sense of himself. In the essay in which he cites Paracelsus, Herbert is trying to explain his poetic method. Midway through, he writes
I shudder when I imagine myself walking down an Athenian street -- at the time of Pericles, of course (every one of us has a favorite epoch) -- and running into Socrates (who else?) who takes me by the elbow in that cunning way of his and says:

'Greetings! I'm so glad I ran into you. Yesterday we spoke with our friends about poetry, what its nature is and whether it tells the truth or lies. Yet none of us, neither Sophron nor Criton, nor even Plato, is a practising poet. But you create poems and are even praised for your creations, you can tell us what poetry is.'

And now I know for sure that I have already lost. We are surrounded by a wide circle of gaping people. I'll share the fate of General Laches who could not define courage and that of Polos, the Sophist who didn't understand rhetoric at all, and also that of the priest Euthyphron who was so pious he could say nothing wise.

And the conclusion will certainly be this: I will slink away in shame, followed by their laughter, the voice of the dialectician at my back:

'What? You are going away and leaving us in ignorance, you, the only one capable of making things clear? Are you carrying the secret off with you so you can continue to deceive us with your miraculous voice? And we -- we still don't know whether we should succumb to your magic or whether we should resist it!'
How many of us imagine ourselves in our favorite epoch, meeting one of our heroes -- and being thoroughly mocked and humiliated by him? Herbert goes on to say that one can be brave without being able to explain courage, and be a good poet without being able to explain what poetry is, and he tries his best to make clear how he approaches his art, but he has admitted the limits of his abilities in a fairly memorable way -- far more readable, far easier to understand, than the drek of deconstruction and modern literary criticism.

In any case, my discomfort with the notion that man is needed to complete God's work (or Allah's) came back to me when I was reading a thread on this site, in which someone asks about the Hadith which says in part,
The Last Hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad (the box tree) would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.
The discussion starts off nicely enough, with the answer to the initial question -- "Why do Muslims feel they must kill Jews" -- coming back as, we don't. The questioner persists, then one of the moderators of the forum weighs in:
What you quoted is a hadith dealing with end times and the fighting between muslims and jews.

The hadith did not generalize and ask muslims to kill jews anytime, anywhere; did it?

The hadith should be regarded as a prophecy coming into reality just in our days; this was prophecised 1400 years ago; the jews had no existence or powers in Palestine at that time, don't you agree?!
Later, the moderator, whose location is given as the United Arabic Emirates, writes:
What you have intentionally overlooked is the phrase:
"The Last Hour would not come unless.."

I do have to point out the following beofre i try to explain the obvious to you:

1. The word 'unless' is not an accurate translation of the arabic 'hatta' (until);

2. The hadith starts with the condition of the fight between the muslims and the jews, very explicitly it states "The Last Hour would not come".

I believe you need to re-read all that you have posted and try to think of it in light of what is happening nowadays between muslims and jews.
The idea that human action is required to fulfill God's purpose -- particularly the act of murder -- leaves me less and less comfortable with Paracelsus. It strikes me not as something other than a beautiful, humanistic belief. I should point out that there are Christian zealots who favor rebuilding the Temple -- and destroying the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock -- to accomplish the same purpose. And of course, a moderator on an obscure Internet site does not speak for all Muslims (although it does seem that much of the Arab world, at least, and the Iranian government as well share the enthusiasm for killing Israelis, although I'm not sure they share the writer's eschatological reasoning).

Perhaps it all depends on context -- whether one is completing an act of creation as opposed to bringing about the end of creation -- but it seems to me that while that's a distinction Herbert might have understood, it's not something that the average moderator of the Bismika Allahuma Discussion Forum grasps.

Thursday, August 08, 2002
 
Retribution
I sometimes glance at the Kurd News site. I can't vouch for the accuracy of anything I see there; but I found it interesting that they post press releases from something called the International Committee against Stoning. This story is their handiwork:
Azam a 21-year-old woman from the city called behbahan in Iran has been sentenced to retributory punishment by throwing acid on her face and make her blind. She stated in the court that, a 37 year- old man had harassed her and when he wanted to enter her house forcibly she had to throw acid on his face to defend herself. Not only she is fined and imprisoned for one year, she is also according to the law of retribution (an eye for an eye) condemned to lose her sight. The authorities are to make her blind by pouring acid into her eyes.
As I said, I can't vouch for the piece's accuracy. If I find out anything else, I'll let you know.



Wednesday, August 07, 2002
 
Qutb 6
I have noted before a fondness for Bernard Shaw; this is an aesthetic judgment rather than a political one. Shaw's Julius Caesar in his play, Caesar and Cleopatra, is more real to me than the Caesar of the Commentaries; the Hell he created in Man and Superman is in its own way as horrifying as anything Bosch devised (a Hell where humanity is left entirely to its own devices); and Arms and the Man is prescient about what heroism means in modern warfare. Then there are Shaw's quips -- among my favorites is this one:
Richard Wagner's music isn't as bad as it sounds.
Politically, Shaw was a socialist -- a rather committed one at that. In his lengthy preface to Androcles and the Lion, Shaw interprets the Gospels and some of the Pauline Epistles to show that the only economic system compatible with the tenets of Christianity is socialism. In the essay, he notes that Napoleon considered Islam "as perhaps the best popular religion for modern political use." Shaw, who graded politics primarily on its ability to achieve the socialist system he spent so much time promoting, quoted this approvingly. I raise Shaw for two reasons: first, because towards the end of his work, Social Justice in Islam, Qutb approvingly quotes Shaw on Islam's utility in the modern world. Secondly, because while Shaw's writings on socialism, political theory and religion are fairly concise and straightforward, Qutb's make almost no sense whatsoever, and it's far more agreeable for me to think of Shaw than Qutb.

Be that as it may, onwards to the sixth chapter of Qutb's work, translated as "Economic Theory in Islam." This is a fairly lengthy chapter -- 42 pages divided into seven sections -- which makes sense given that Qutb is trying to show that Islam, as opposed to either the market capitalism of the Western Democracies or the totalitarian socialism of the Eastern Bloc, is the true answer to the material and spiritual crisis of mankind. Qutb considered communism of the Leninist/Stalinist model as more of a threat to his peculiar brand of Islamic tradition, it seems to me that most of the chapter is aimed at showing that Islam is every bit as progressive as Marxist theology. Nevertheless, he takes a fair number of shots at capitalism as well. Oddly enough, incidentally, he doesn't really attack the tenets of Marxism, but rather attempts to show that Islam's economic theory, while it makes a few concessions to the individual, is primarily aimed at the health of the community. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Because of the length of the chapter, I'm going to gloss quite a bit of it. After an introduction noting that Islam relies on both law and exhortation to set economic policy, and an important Hadith of the prophet on the topic of not hoarding wealth, there's a lengthy section on the "Right of Individual Ownership." Qutb tells us that Islam "ratifies" the right of ownership, and goes on to cite specific areas where this is so -- the right of inheritance (meaning the possessor of property can pass it on to heirs), the ability to rent, sell, mortgage or exchange by contract property, and the rather severe penalties for theft of property (cutting off hands).

Lest anyone think we're in the realm of the self-evident right to the pursuit of happiness, Qutb shifts gears to tell us that while the right to ownership of property is ratified, it's more or less meaningless:
...Islam does not establish the right of personal ownership absolutely, without bounds or limitations; it certainly ratifies that right, but along with it are ratified other principles that almost make it theoretical rather than practical. They almost strip a man bare of his right to posession by the time that he has met all his essential needs.
Along these lines, we learn,
The cardinal principle that Islam ratifies along with that of the right of individual possession is that the individual is in a way a steward of his property on behalf of society; his tenure of property is more of a duty than an actual right of possession. Property in the widest sense is a right that can belong only to society, which in turn receives it as a trust from Allah who is the only true owner of anything.
Now, obviously, the right to property is limited somewhat in the West -- it's not absolute. A court can order an individual to make restitution to someone he's injured; one can have one's land seized through eminent domain, or its use restricted by environmental regulations. We can argue about the extent of these encroachments on private property, but generally, the principle underlying property in the United States is that a man's home is his castle, which is much more conducive to economic growth than the notion that a man's right of possession is stripped bare by the demands of the community. Such stripping seems to conflict with "the sanctity of this right of possession...and the necessity for preventing its being infringed," which is a phrase Qutb earlier uses to describe Islam's attitude toward property.

Next, Qutb describes the means that Islam permits for acquiring property. There are seven, and I list them in the order Qutb gives them: Hunting, cultivating waste lands which have no owner, mining, raiding the property of unbelievers, working for a wage, the granting by a ruler of land that does not belong to anyone, and money necessary to sustain life (by which Qutb means sharing out the proceeds of the zakat tax, which is a religious duty for believers to pay, and alms. I don't know whether Qutb is accurate or not here, but if these were the only seven permissible ways to acquire property, you end up with a pretty impoverished society. It also seems odd that there's no mention of trade, which was a fairly important segment of the economy in the time of the Prophet.

From the permissible means of acquiring property, Qutb moves on to the subject of how one increases property. The short answer is: there is no way. In six and a half pages on the topic, Qutb offers one sentence of 23 words that lists three permissible ways: tilling the ground, transforming raw materials into finished products, and selling retail. The rest is a lengthy diatribe on how one may not increase one's wealth. To begin with, too much money is a bad thing:
Capital only reaches the disgracefully swollen proportions that we see today when it is amassed by swindling, usury, oppression of the workers, monopolies or exploitation of the needs of the community, robbing, plundering, despoiling and pillaging -- and by all the other methods involved in contemporary exploitation. This is what Islam does not permit.
Presumably, if the swindling, robbing, plundering and pillaging was done by believers to non-believers, that would be okay.

The attack on capital is interesting, largely because western economists tend to believe that excess capital can be invested in all sorts of ventures, including speculative ones that may not may not pay off for years. Like research into pharmaceuticals, for example.
...we find the medicine markets monopolized by Jews and others; so the sick undergo suffering or are left to die, while the monopolists make their scandalous profits and thereby amsass their unlawful wealth.
Leave aside the bizarre anti-Semitic reference (or don't -- remember it, but that's not the point I'm trying to make here): the development of those medicines required a tremendous capital investment. If the accretion of such capital is forbidden, surely its fruits (life-saving drugs) are forbidden as well?

After a lengthy attack on usury, Qutb moves on to his next topic: Ways of Spending. I'm of two minds about this section. On the one hand, there's a lengthy diatribe against luxury. On the other, we find passages like this one:
...when the American workingman, for example, has his house with hot running water, electricity and gas, his radio set and his private automobile, when he may, if he is able, make a weekly excursion with his family or visit a cinema; when these things are so, it is not a luxury that the White House should be the home of the President. But when millions in a nation cannot find a mouthful of pure water to drink, it is undeniably luxury that some few people should be able to drink Vichy and Evian, imported from overseas. And when there are millions who cannot afford the simplest dwelling, who in the twentieth century have to take tin cans and reed huts as their houses; when there are those who cannot even find rags to cover their bodies, it is an impossible luxury that a mosque should cost a hundred thousand guineas or that the Ka'ba should be covered with a velvet covering, embroidered with gold.
Qutb seems not to have asked himself why the American workingman could afford his own home (a mortgage) or a private car (a car loan), or the products of the cinema (invested capital, loans, stocks), and other should not be able to find rags to cover their bodies while the Ka'ba is dressed like Elvis Presley.

Qutb goes on to write about the Zakat and other taxes, ending by noting that tax rates can be set wherever the regime needs to set them. And that ends my summary of his chapter on economic theory in Islam. All I can say is that from what little I know of economics, it's a prescription for poverty. I should add that I left a good deal out of my summary.

For me, the most bizarre thing was the evocation of the "American workingman," and his home, his car, his radio set, his Saturday family outing or trip to the movie theater. Qutb wrote in the 1950s; one can well imagine a suburb somewhere with Dad coming home from work to be kissed by Mom in her smart blouse and checked, pleated skirt, their son and daughter running up to say hi before going off to play hide and seek with the neighborhood kids, the evening paper, a pipe...Qutb saw all this and found it to be the wellspring of evil of in the world, something that would fall to communism, which in turn would fall to Islam. Bizarre...

Sunday, August 04, 2002
 
Jobless?
I saw this item in the Arab News, and couldn't help wondering...well, read it for yourself first:
RIYADH, 5 August — Saudi Arabia’s vast expatriate community is in two minds, whether to continue until they are declared unwanted or call it a day sooner than later.

The dilemma is the direct result of a recent government move to reserve 22 job sectors for Saudis. Since the official announcement came a few days before the summer vacation, some of those who had planned to spend their holidays in countries other than their own changed their plans and headed home in a bid to explore job or business opportunities.
Is it possible that John Bradley is getting his clips together (maybe he'll apply to James Taranto for a job...) because of the Saudization program? Prospective employers -- please be sure to vet his references with the inimitable Joshua Trevino of i330 fame.

As an aside, I have to say that i330 is one of my favorite reads these days. Not that I didn't enjoy it before, but Josh & Co. seem to have kicked it into a higher gear since the redesign.