Marxism and Islam: Failure and Success (Dr. Manzoor-ul-Haque)

For understanding the real merit of this lecture, a gist of what Ernest Gellner 1925-1995 wrote is summarized below:

There are two big events of this century: one is the failure of Marxism; the other is the success of Islam. I (Gellner) am an outsider to both. The terms I (Gellner) use are analytical or sociological and do not imply endorsement or condemnation from an absolute viewpoint; they express the judgments of an observer of society concerned sympathetically with the fate of the people involved in these systems.

Success of Islam: A Striking Event of Our Century

A very surprising major striking event is the tremendous success of Islam in maintaining and strengthening itself. Most social scientists accepted the secularization thesis: in modern or industrial societies the hold of religion over society and over the hearts and minds of men declines. This seems more or less true with one striking exception: the world of Islam, where the hold of religion over society and men in the past hundred years has certainly increased.

A Total Collapse of Marxism: Another Event

The other equally surprising event of the century was the unexpected and total collapse of Marxism. It (Marxism) did lack one prominent feature of religion. When religions are established, they retain a hold on the hearts and minds of men, and do not collapse easily. When they do collapse, there is some resistance and struggle; some people remain loyal to their religion. Marxism succeeded in retaining the loyalty of a remarkably small number of its followers.

Strength of Nationalism: A Less Surprising Event

Another somewhat less surprising but not properly anticipated facet of this century was the strength of nationalism. However, for a long time the decline of nationalism was confidently predicted. The syllogism that entails the demise of nationalism has two features: firstly, Marxists and liberals share it, and secondly, it is absolutely cogent. The argument is very simple: Nationalism depends on ethnic, cultural, national differences which it turns into principles of political membership and loyalty. This is unquestionably true. Secondly, the conditions of the industrial world, with the tendency towards mobility, dissolution of local communities, instability, and standardization of communication, erode cultural, linguistic, and ethnic difference. Thus one can conclude that nationalism ultimately collapses in the modern world because the foundations upon which it is built are gradually eroded. Unfortunately, this conclusion does not correspond to the facts.

Islam and Marxism: Reasons

Why has Islam been so astonishingly successful? To put it simply, Islam was divided between a high culture and a low culture. High culture Islam encourages a direct relationship between a unique deity and individual believer; it is not attached to ritual; it contains little magic and supernatural belief, and is heavily moralistic, scripturalist, puritan, monotheistic, and individualistic. It is the Islam of the scholars. My (Gellner’s) theory of why Muslim fundamentalism has the astonishing strength is: modern conditions unhinged the pendulum of this unstable oscillation and permanently and definitively shifted the center of gravity away from low Islam and toward high Islam. The reason of this happening is that the process of modernization destroyed those communities that provided the basis for the low culture style of Islam. By turning clansmen, lineage members, villagers, and tribesmen into labor migrants and shantytown dwellers, it atomized the population and prompted them to find their identity in a high culture (based on Islam) that provides an identity shared by all Muslims, uniting them against the outsiders.

Islam’s Ratification: A Transition of People

Islam ratified the transition of these people from a rural to an urban world, and it provided an idiom for expressing their change of status from that of rustic ignoramuses to people aspiring to urban sophistication. It also provided a means of criticizing their current rulers. It provided an idiom for those non-Westernized people who take their Islam seriously, as against the technocratic rulers who govern them in virtue of their access to Western technology. On the contrary, what undid Marxism is not its secularism; it was its pantheism that it inherited. The basic messianic ideal of Marxism was to abolish the separation of the sacred from the profane in human life. The idea was that the world is bound to be soiled and miserable, while fulfillment was to be found in another realm; it was merely a reflection of a divided society.

As far as I (Gellner) can see, the difference between the success of Islam and the failure of Marxism is that Marxism was precisely Unitarian and pantheist and wanted a total consummation in this world. It made the real world sacred and spurned the old habit of finding consolation in the sky. Marx’s vision of the world was a generalization: the essence of man is work – not aggressiveness, not virility, or status; fulfillment is through work and work is its own reward. This was in opposition to an aristocrat or a working man: the aristocrat does not work at all and the working man works in order to get his salary. The proponents always hoped that there would be a world, in which the rule of thugs and humbugs, of the red and the black, would be replaced by the rule of the people who really work. The essence of Marxism was that it provided a secular counter-answer to the earlier theological absolutism meant to be an implementation of an absolute morality. But it remained a figment of imagination.

Islam has its merits. It is acceptable to the modern world because of its Unitarian, puritanical denial of magic. At the same time it regulates life. It does provide for a zone, which makes it a workable modern religion. It combines firm guidance in an idiom compatible with modern backgrounds, with a respect for the type of social division that is essential for a viable society.

Hungry for Material Improvement

Large parts of the world are still very hungry for material improvement, and the differences between the have and the have-not are still powerful. I (Gellner) do not think this can go on indefinitely.”

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