Friday, October 16, 2009

It is actually a clash of epistemologies

It is actually a clash of epistemologies ‘

An Interview with Professor Antony Black
By A Rangarajan
Professor Tony Black is Professor Emeritus at the University of Dundee where he occupies a special Chair on the History of Political thought. His academic work included topics such as sovereignty, and the origin of the state. Professor Black has guided courses and researched extensively on Islamic Political thought. His 2001 book ‘The History of Islamic Political Thought from the Prophet to the Present’ was translated into Turkish and was published in Pakistan as well in 2004. His book ‘A world History of Ancient Political thought ‘was published in May 2009 and has been nominated for the Mackenzie book prize that is awarded by the Political Studies Association of UK. This title was preceded by ‘The West and Islam: Religion and Politics in World History ‘and was published in 2008. Both books have attracted worldwide attention for the comparative approach.

Q. Professor Black , Samuel Huntington has indeed stirred a hornet’s nest with his article in ‘Foreign Affairs’ and later with a book that expanded the theme of ‘ The clash of Civilizations’. He proclaimed that the dominating source of international conflict from now on would be cultural. He wrote ‘the fault lines of civilizations are the battle lines of the future’ implying a finality on the irreconcilable differences between the West and the Rest. After a life time of work on the comparative history of political thought what are your views on this topic of some urgency, given the conflicts around the globe?
I would proceed to examine this question within the frame work of relations between the West and the Islamic world. In order to understand the differences one would have to go back a little into the past. The Central theme that possibly could lie at the heart of the differences is to be found in question of keeping secular governance and religion apart or together. The question of legitimacy of power. It is often forgotten that since their respective beginnings Islamic and Western worlds have criss crossed their positions on this vital question. The Caliphate and Holy Emperor or Caesaropapism are similar institutions. Holy wars and Jihads are similar ideas. With its beginnings rooted in austerity, shunning of the state and power, Christianity took a completely different turn by the 4th Century C.E .when Emperor Constantine founded the Holy Roman Empire. Islam on the other hand after early years of intense fighting came to phase where it came into an era of Political quietism by the 8th Century and as the great scholar Patricia Crone puts, ‘Muslims saw themselves belonging to two different communities one religious and other political one the umma and the other the secular kingdoms into which into which it was divided’. The renowned Mulsim thinker Ghazali put it pragmatically – men living in close quarters where given to envy and antagonisms therefore law was needed to order things. This also meant an enforcer of law was needed. So the question of legitimacy to use coercion has been a key question in this debate. In the West conflicts between the Church and Kings followed by Protestant revolution and the contribution by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke led to the separation of the sate and religion. Largely the West had come to regard that that legitimacy came from people themselves and not from Divine sources. Whilst in the Islamic world from the 12th century onwards, influences of theologians like al Mawardi have been pronounced in reassertion of the politico – military character of the religion. It is often not recalled that in this respect Eastern / Orthodox Christianity had more in common with Islam as the throne and the altar remained wedded till the twentieth century. As in political philosophy questions like the source of ultimate knowledge about the world and human existence are central here. Do we find them in divine sources or through reason, empirical evidence, science and philosophy? I therefore see it not as ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West but only as a ‘Clash of Epistemologies’ within Islam and within the West or for that matter within any culture.

Q. Coming closer to the present day and looking at the role played by the West in the post Ottaman era in the twentieth century in the Middle East it has been one of excessive interference either in the name of containing communism or pursuing geo-political gains . The fate of progressive leaders like Mossadiq in Iran and other similar events are bound have their own influences one would assume. How do you see these later day developments?
Yes the case of Mossadiq in Iran in the 50s is a classic instance where a secular socialist ruler came to power and was ousted by the West for two reasons. One because of the fear of communism to which you have alluded, and the other being that of oil. The oil situation has clearly bedeviled the relations between the West and the Muslim majority counties. In Syria, Egypt Iraq and Iran people had shown great enthusiasm for Socialism and modern political discourse. Interferences of this kind have not allowed an internal debate in these counties to play out fully. And this made many in the Muslim majority world harden their positions. It seems that even into the twenty first century these mistakes have been repeated leading to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan showing little understanding of the peoples and their realities. All this has contributed to the state of affairs as they stand today along with other factors like the creation of Israel etc.

Q. What can academics like you recommend as ameliorative measures to bring more trust back into the situation?
I think the onus is on both sides to correct the balance. The West should give up its moral high ground of spreading democracy etc and give up remnants of its imperialist ways. Just as religion, philosophy cannot be forced. In the Muslim majority countries there has to evolve a leadership that can reinterpret the texts and scriptures. It could be true that early days of the religion were influenced by the warlike situation that prevailed. A reinterpretation to suit the altered context of the present day is a need of the hour. In a way the contextual and the universal has to be understood and separated. That is perhaps the principal challenge Islam has to address in the present day and that has come from within. Relating to people of other faiths and even non believers in Muslim majority countries should be based on humanistic values. Academicians can bring perhaps help by bringing to focus various chapters from the past when various view points on text and contexts have been debated.

Q. Two important books of yours on political thought were published recently. What is the new insight you bring in, after all history of Western Political thought is over documented.
The fresh perspective I bring stems from the comparative element. You can better understand characteristics of western political thought when you compare it with, say Islamic political thought. You can understand better the role played by the by Philosophy in both Western and Islamic intellectual traditions. The other way around Western political thought throws light on the characteristics of Islamic political thought. My more recent book explores political thought in other civilizations such as the Indian and Chinese.

Legacy of Omar Khayyam

This was written originally as a curtain raiser article of the conference.

International Conference on the Legacy of Omar Khayyam.

A Rangarajan

With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hands labour’d it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d---
‘I came like Water and like Wind I go’.

Magical quatrains such as these have become etched in the minds of men ever since Edward Fitzgerald rendered them into English from the original Persian. Rubaiyat is now seen as a treasure that belongs to all of mankind and people have found immense solace in its philosophy when pondering on the human condition. It was 150 years ago that the first edition of this translation was published in January 1859. Commemorating and celebrating that occasion an International Conference on the Legacy of Omar Khayyam is being jointly organised and hosted by the Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Cambridge University in the UK. The conference would take place in two parts. On the 6th and 7th of July at Leiden, the sessions would focus on Omar Khayyam, the Mathematician, Astronomer, Philosopher and Poet. From 8th and till 10th July the Cambridge session will focus on Fitzgerald. Scholars and academics from all over the world are slated to present papers and contribute to the ensuing discussions on this rich legacy. There papers are also expected to explore Omar Khayyam’s legacy from their respective cultural perspectives. For the Leiden part of the Conference four Scholars from Tehran University are expected to participate and other Iranian scholars are presenting papers at the Cambridge edition as well.

Omar was a mathematician who wrestled with square roots and cube roots, complex algebraic equations and conic sections. He spent delightful hours working in the observatory making keen astronomical observations and as a philosopher he wrote treatises on Avicena and Aristotelian contributions. The world remembers him best through his melancholic poetry that is so rich in meaning and metaphor. That is why it makes him a unique and enigmatic personality explains Dr.Asghar Seyed-Gohrab of the department of Persian Studies at the University of Leiden. Khayyam’s legacy is seen through various glasses and some call him a materialist philosopher- a non believer whilst others call him a hedonist. Yet others see him espousing strict predestination & determinism and many saw him as a figure of resistance challenging established order of the day. While admitting that it was Fitzgerald who helped Rubaiyyat to catch the world’s attention and imagination on such a scale and intensity as we know today, Omar Khayyam has been quoted and revered in Persia and Iran starting with the 13th Century work of Shirwani titled Nozhat al-Majales and others through the centuries adds Dr, Syed-Gohrab, one of the organisers of the conference. This said work dealing with love & separation has a chapter titled’ the essence of Khayyam’. While the quatrains of Rubaiyat lavish praise on the pleasures of life as perhaps is all that we have to hold on to in this brief sojourn, they have been interpreted as being deeply mystical and allegorical in the Sufi traditions and even in Indian spiritual contexts, adding yet another twist to the mystery that surrounds it.

Edward Fitzgerald, for his part, was born 31st March 1809 thus making this conference a bicentennial celebration in his honour as well. Fitzgerald went to Trinity College in Cambridge and that is where the second part of this Conference would take place. While Fitzgerald as a writer and poet lived in relative obscurity until his translation of Rubaiyat hit the scene. Even then it was slow to evince interest – it took nearly 29 years for the second edition to be printed but there after it took the world by storm with generations memorising these quatrains and reciting them. To date some 650 editions have been run including a 1862 Madras edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The last paper at the Trinity College will talk about this specific edition. Over hundred artists have contributed to the various ornately illustrated editions of the Rubaiyat and about one hundred composers have set it to music and it has been widely translated into more than 50 languages all over the world. However, in modern day Iran, Omar Khayyam does not enjoy a place of pre-eminence that is accorded to other great poets. For instance, the mausoleum of Omar Khayyam was not given due attention and it went into neglect and it was President Khatami who changed that and accorded the attention that was accorded to other mausoleums like that of Hafiz and other great poets of Persia.

It is hoped that this conference will enrich our understanding further and help us appreciate better the significance of Rubaiyat as a great work of literature and philosophy to be cherished by all humanity.