*Between Quran & Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities*

by on December 13, 2017 at 9:36 am in Books, Education, History, Philosophy, Religion, The Arts | Permalink

That is another truly splendid book by Navid Kermani.  Imagine deep and thoughtful essays on Goethe and Islam, Kleist and love, Shiite passion plays, Wagner and empathy, and why he doesn’t so much sympathize with King Lear, all from a George Steiner brand of polymath.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kermani is ethnically Persian but was born and grew up in Germany.  Imagine a devout Muslim absorbing and internalizing the best of German classical literary culture, including Lessing, Zweig, Benjamin, Mann, and much more.  He recreates a version of that tradition that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.  And might he now be Germany’s best and most important public intellectual?

I’d like to put forward a simple hypothesis.  Tune down the yappers.  Read and study Kermani, Michel Houllebecq, Bruno Maçães, Ross Douthat, and assorted others.  Once I wrote: “Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.”  This is what I meant, and I don’t even know if the second and third writers on my list believe in God.

Here is my previous post on Kermani.

1 rayward December 13, 2017 at 9:52 am

“Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.” Cowen is correct: “Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.” That’s from a Pew Research Center forum titled The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

2 rayward December 13, 2017 at 10:25 am

One might ask whether Cowen believes an increasing importance of religion in the world is a good thing or a bad thing. For a libertarian, it’s likely considered a good thing. Those who read Douthat will know what I mean. To Douthat, secularization is the cause of much unhappiness/conflict/sickness in the world, as people substituted the secular for the spiritual. According to this view, government is a form of secular religion, the social welfare state a substitute for spiritual awareness and fulfillment. A poor substitute at that. What people need is less government and more religion. I’m a Christian, so I get it. But I’m not ignorant of world history, a history replete with conflict, violence, torture, wars, and depravity in the name of religion. Indeed, the enormous growth in government during the George Bush administration was in direct response to the conflict, violence, torture, wars, and depravity in the name of Islam in the middle east. Be careful what you ask for.

3 patrick k December 13, 2017 at 10:57 am

Influential religious thinkers? Good grief. Now that’s a dystopian future if there ever was one. We had them everywhere during the dark ages. I do believe you will be right, however, especially in Europe over the next century.

4 patrick k December 13, 2017 at 11:00 am

Sorry. It posted in the wrong place. Was not meant to be a reply just a comment at the bottom.

5 rayward December 13, 2017 at 10:50 am

On the other hand, religion (i.e., theology) is philosophy. I’ve mentioned N.T. (Tom) Wright in several comments. He has devoted much of his life to the study of St. Paul, publishing a 1,000 page book on Wright’s interpretation of Paul’s letters. Even Garry Wills has written a book titled What Paul Meant (thankfully, much shorter than Wright’s). I have listened to several lectures by Wright on Paul. Long lectures. As I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder why a highly intelligent person like Wright would spend so much of his life studying a religious zealot. And take it all so seriously. Well, theology. It may seem foreign to us today, but in the 19th century very smart people, the smartest people, in this country studied religion (specifically, Christianity) as part of a classical education at the best colleges, and some even devoted their lives to religion (including my great grandfather) rather than to banking, medicine, or law. For those who don’t know, Harvard was founded to train ministers, not bankers (or economists). What happened in the 20th century in America is that religion was dumbed-down in order to appeal to the less educated: far from an intellectual exercise, religion became a tool for hucksters to take advantage of the suckers. There are so many hucksters, promoting such nonsense (e.g., the prosperity gospel), that for the educated today religion seems little more than superstition. It’s a shame. Even readers of this blog confuse theology with history.

6 Thor December 13, 2017 at 1:17 pm

A large part, if not the largest part, of religion is submission and faith. Philosophy is reasoning and deliberating and choosing, based on examined criteria. Religion, often, is a matter of being commanded.

I suspect theology is but a tiny part of religion, perhaps something an elite 1% engage in.

7 clockwork_prior December 13, 2017 at 2:23 pm

‘of religion is submission and faith’

A whole bunch of Buddhists cannot be bothered to dispute such a silly notion.

8 msgkings December 13, 2017 at 3:13 pm

Wrong again, Buddhism is definitely about submission, or elimination, of the self.

9 Alan Goldhammer December 13, 2017 at 10:26 am

Tyler, thanks for the recommendation; this sounds like a book that I will enjoy. My only quibble is your comment about studying Ross Douthat; I find him to be quite a lightweight in reading his NY Times pieces over the years have learned very little.

10 CM December 13, 2017 at 10:34 am

Douthat is a good writer but he is just in the business of justifying conservatism to non-conservatives. He might present that viewpoint with wit and grace but his viewpoint is not original and should not be new to anyone with a basic liberal arts education.

I did not read any Houllebecq after Platform. That book was too shallowly nihilistic for me. I took from it that Houllebecq does not think that Westerners are capable of developing any new values or ways of being in the absence of traditional / patriarchal society. That strikes me as boring bullshit.

11 Thor December 13, 2017 at 1:35 pm

“Douthat is a good writer but he is just in the business of justifying conservatism to non-conservatives.”

And what pray tell do you believe the entire NY Times to be?

Personally I think he’s an alright writer, but a good and interesting thinker.

Do you have any idea how unlikely it is that students pursuing a basic liberal arts education would be assigned Douhat?

12 CM December 13, 2017 at 3:50 pm

If the criticism is valid, both Douthat and the NY Times should be ignored / downgraded. The shortcomings of one does not cancel out the shortcomings of the other.

I am aware that no one reads Douthat in college. I don’t think they should. As an exercise, try to follow the arguments in his columns. It does not work because he simply jumps from allusion to aside to conclusion. If you like his allusions or conclusions the whole thing has a pleasing effect. But there is no chain of logic that leads to deeper insight, no reporting, no data or data analysis, or really anything that can change a rational mind. Sometimes I think the entirety of his oeuvre consists in communicating that there is this intelligent, cultured man named Ross Douthat who went to Harvard and thinks conservative thoughts. It is the existence of this character, rather than anything that he actually writes, that is important. The character legitimizes conservative thought without actually having to actually define what conservative thought consists of or defend its tenets.

13 Potato December 13, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Not a RD fan myself. However, the purpose of Op-Eds is not to “convince a rational mind.” Outside of Scott Alexander I’m not sure there’s a popular writer trying to convince rational minds.

Mostly virtue signalling and preaching to the choir, with a foil or three to gin up rage clicks.

14 CM December 13, 2017 at 5:34 pm

Agreed. That’s why I think its puzzling that TC thinks we should be studying Douthat.

15 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 13, 2017 at 10:46 am

If we are going to have X, we should try to have better X.

Where X = science, religion, politics, business, government, markets, families, communities

And so sure, there probably are excellent writers who can contribute, though to be honestly pessimistic, I expect the real fights at a dumber level. Think Roy Moore, Brexit, Trump, Bitcoin.

16 Potato December 13, 2017 at 5:10 pm

I think this is the disconnect.

Most here think the government should protect our rights as its primary function. The purpose of the federal government should be to enshrine our liberties in a constitution and prevent state, federal and local governments from infringing upon them.

For example, DoJ preventing southern states from disenfranchising African Americans. DoJ intervening when police arbitrarily arrest minorities. DoJ enshrining gay marriage as the law. The purpose of a higher (government) should be to prevent lower level governments from taking away our rights.

Some think the purpose of government is to “create better x.”

I’d support a constitutional right to abortion and marriage with any other adult(s), but I really don’t want a government dedicated to making a Soviet Man and Better Society. That sounds infringing and terrifying.

17 Harun December 13, 2017 at 5:30 pm

To be fair, he did not posit that government had to make the better X.

He in fact listed it as something that could be improved.

But there is an instinct to reach for the state, when it would be wise just to do it yourself or trust your fellow man to come up with a non-coercive solution.

18 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 13, 2017 at 5:41 pm

It was intended that all X be improved in their domain, and that none would always be superior.

19 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 14, 2017 at 10:25 am

I should have said “each X”

20 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 13, 2017 at 5:40 pm

There can be serious discussion about what is “better” in government, but I think too often people fall to “more is better” or “less is better.” That is not very serious, or productive, or goal oriented.

“We can put fluoride in the water, and it would lead to improved ..”

“No, we can’t because it would be more!

21 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 14, 2017 at 10:28 am

To list one from the other side “more money for schools” is often said without a performance goal or metric.

I think Tyler has convinced me that preschool has a less obvious performance return than boosters assume. (And yes, some forms of public medical spending.)

22 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 10:54 am

No reading list on religion can be complete without a representation from the fountainhead of spiritual thought – India.

Some writers I recommend – Eknath Easwaran’s work on Upanisads, Swami Vivekananda’s collective works and among more recent authors, Edwin Bryant’s works on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Bhakti Yoga

23 E. P. December 13, 2017 at 8:53 pm

Thanks for the recommendations. Schopenhauer, one of the few philosophers to die nobly, or almost nobly, was a big fan of some sub-continental writings that had been translated into Latin.

Robert Southey has a good long epic poem on Hindu mythology – you should read it. The versification is flawless although the poem is virtually forgotten.

“Kim” by Kipling is an Indian novel, written by someone born in India in a language that was at the time a living language in India (see Hobson Jobson if you don’t know why I would say that) : I have not read it, but his stories set in India are very good, and Kipling was not bad at describing religion.

There is a recently restored version of “Lost Horizon” (novel- Hilton, film – Capra) that you might like. Believe me, the people who made the film were not all that sure about any differences between Tibet and the parts of India that are kind of mountainous.

The subcontinental Roman Catholic saints are an interesting lot, as well, and not just the Jesuits. Unless you are from India, it helps to speak Portuguese or Latin if you want to read about them, though.

24 E.P. December 13, 2017 at 9:33 pm

Not saying Schopenhauer was a particularly good philosopher, but you can’t really say he wasn’t actually a philosopher.

My favorite German philosophers are Coleridge and George MacDonald.

25 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for the comment. Not aware of Robert Southey’s poem. Which one is that?

26 E.P. December 13, 2017 at 10:10 pm

“Midnight, and through all the Imperial City not one eye closed in sleep!”

It is called, ridiculously, “The Curse of Kehama”. Southey was not good at titles. There is a good long excerpt in the Norton anthology, free on Google. The whole poem is copyright free but one really needs to imagine it as a popular book that people once were willing to pay for, and willing to expend their energy imagining as real, not as some strings of uncared for words on the internet, worthless in the marketplaces of these days, the days of the living, as I once heard them called. If you consider it just some more free words on the internet you will not like it.

That being said, I did not say it was accurate, I said it was good. If I could versify like that, even today, I would be rich. But I really really like long poems by real poets, and my definition of ‘real poet’ is very generous, so take that into account. You will not like the preface, I guarantee that – imagine Edgar Allan Poe describing the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, and all the inaccuracies that would entail: well, Southey was in a way the Rowling of his day, and that is not exactly a compliment.

27 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 9:32 pm

I forgot to mention History of Indian Philosophy by Dasgupta and by Radhakrishnan – independent works. Perhaps superior to the above recommendations.

28 The Anti-Gnostic December 13, 2017 at 10:56 am

The future belongs to those who show up.

29 middle aged vet December 13, 2017 at 10:32 pm

“I tell you that out of these stones God can raise children for Abraham.”

I for one identify with whomever God wants to call children of Abraham so while I do not disagree with a single one of your 8 words I am not worried about the future.

By the way, as much as I love Manhattan and the art deco skyscrapers, particularly the ones in Midtown east of the Avenue of the Americas (Lexington, Fourth, Madison – verb. sap. ) I would love to go back in time and run an architecture school – I would invite Gaudi in every once in a while – no I am not humbled by skyscrapers, even if they are art deco era and even if they are the most famous skyscrapers in the world. Were I to go back in time and run an architecture school in 1910 or so – an impossible scenario, but less impossible than you think – Manhattan would be even more impressive than it is. And I know several architects who would do a much better job than I would, even today!

Sadly, the only realistic chance I have to influence the actual world of Manhattan skyscrapers is utilitarian – 40k would buy me a pest control franchise at Kings County city hall. I would be good at that. A loss for all of us, I like to think.

“I tell you that out of these stones God can raise children for Abraham.” Well, there’s that, too.

30 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 10:57 am

And also not sure why “Eastern” features in the title of this post.

Islam is a western religion. Any intellectual influence that originated to the west of the Hindukush mountains is western.

31 anonymous December 13, 2017 at 9:30 pm

In English, the Chaldean astronomers/astrologers (not Islamic, I know) are considered Eastern. The beloved Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (not about Islamic kings, I know) has an interesting set of lyrics which may enlighten you on why Islam is considered an Eastern religion by English language speakers. Some extrapolating needs to be done but you are very intelligent, obviously, and so I will leave the extrapolating to you.

Nassim Taleb writes a lot on the similar subject of whether all Mediterranean cultures are Western. He says yes, I think. But that is a different subject.

That being said, I have been told that the lost poetry of many ancient Hellenistic and slightly later poets – in Greek and Syriac languages both, inter alia – might have been the inspiration for much of the surviving Arabic writings from back in the day (500-800 A.D.), some of which might be word for word translations of the lost poetry from the Greek and Syriac and neighboring Western languages.

32 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 11:10 am

I have a slightly unorthodox take here. The first step towards secularization was taken when Rome fell to Christianity and the old Pagan world collapsed. That was the beginning of the end of religion.

First of all it marked the divorce of religion and philosophy. The two were never regarded as distinct fields of thought prior to the rise of Christianity. So this greatly degraded the status of religion and increasingly the distinction between the secular and the sacred became stark. Prior to Christianity, the dichotomy of the sacred and the secular didn’t exist. Religion pervaded every aspect of life and was never viewed as something opposed or angatonistic to the secular life. You see this even today in non-Abrahamic countries like India and Japan where people refuse to see any conflict between religion and everyday secular existence. The two are happily enmeshed.

The dichotomy was introduced by Christianity and that marked the start of the decline of religion. Plus Christianity’s emphasis on universalism meant that you had to find a religion that “worked” for the whole human race. And given the impossibility of that goal, a wholesale rejection of religion was inevitable. Particularist societies are less ambitious in that regard. They are fine with tolerating a 1000 religious sects as they more openly embrace diversity unlike totalitarian thought movements like Christianity and Islam.

33 peri December 13, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Christianity – and in its wake, Islam – exalt the poor, so they could never be entirely at ease in the world.

34 Ray Lopez December 13, 2017 at 12:43 pm

@shrikanthk – your unorthodox view is a cut-and-paste (without you knowing it) of some stuff Frances Fukuyama wrote about the state. In a nutshell, the Catholic church and its celibate priest caste were necessary for a strong secular (!) state (ditto for the Ottoman eunuchs (!), ditto for the scholar class in Han and post-Han China). Read his three books on the state, they are quite provocative, albeit a bit tiresome and repetitive.

35 AnthonyB December 13, 2017 at 2:31 pm

Nietzsche and Strauss have much to say about the supremacy of religion over philosophy and vice-versa. For Nietzsche, it’s best if the philosophers win but rule covertly with the help of a religion they control and which reflects the truth they have discovered. It’s hard to tell if Strauss goes along with that or not.

36 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 9:41 pm

I thought Strauss was a great admirer of the old masters – Plato and Aristotle. While Neitzsche held those Greek masters in low regard. True?

Neitzche by the way was a fan of the Manu smriti, a famous but now somewhat notorious Hindu law book from ~200-100BC, which is despised by liberals today for its highly conservative views on caste.

The reactionary in Neitzche somehow liked the Manu Smriti. He thought of it as a noble book

37 AnthonyB December 13, 2017 at 11:54 pm

Nietzsche thought Plato a facilitator of monotheism since he posited a singular Good, leading to a moral monoculture. Strauss thought the ‘pious fraud’ of religion useful for the masses, exactly as Nietzsche did, though for Nietzsche it would be a religion expressly cooked up for the ‘philosophy of the future’ and not the one self-styling itself as ‘revealed.’

38 A Truth Seeker December 13, 2017 at 11:54 am

“Plus Christianity’s emphasis on universalism meant that you had to find a religion that “worked” for the whole human race.”

As opposed to the real world, where gravity works in Bangladesh, but not in Paraguay, and atoms exist in Japan, but not in Italy…
Evidently, the One, True God is the One and True God whatever the latitude. The real God is not some kind of local dish, He is universal because He created the Universe. Nota Bene: deep down, the demon-worshippers know all demon-worshipping is the same because all demon-worshipping is wishfulthinking opposition to the Lord. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance”

“You see this even today in non-Abrahamic countries like India and Japan where people refuse to see any conflict between religion and everyday secular existence. The two are happily enmeshed.”

Which explains why their “religions” are nothing but a collection of disjointed cults (that demon is worshipped there, this demon is worshipped here) propped by the powerful. There is no real authoritative books, like the Bible and the Prophecies of Prophet Bandarra, which tells the truth. Any folk tale can be scripture. “Religion” is whatever the powerful say it is (e.g. Shaivism, State Shinto, etc.). E-fumi, militarism, Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Sati and famine, those are the fruits of demon-worshipping.

In Red China, Christians are persecuted and forced to put Xi’s pictures in the place of Christian symbols. Meanwhile, in Christian countries, demon-worshippers are well-treated. Why?

Brazil is the most faithful Christian nation. Onward, Christian soldiers, Deus vult!!

39 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 12:03 pm

“There is no real authoritative books, like the Bible”

That’s just a lot of bull. There is a very clearly specified canon in Hinduism – which includes the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta Sutras. Among these three, the first two are given the status of “Shruti” (revelation). and are not the works of sages or the “powerful” as you put it.

40 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 12:06 pm

“Meanwhile, in Christian countries, demon-worshippers are well-treated”

Haha. Ever heard of the Spanish inquisition? Christian Spain / Portugal (your ancestral region), did not even treat their fellow Abrahamic co-religionists (Jews and Muslims) very well. Leave alone Satans like us.

41 A Truth Seeker December 13, 2017 at 12:40 pm

You can not seriously compare the Inquisition, as regratable an affair it was, with the persecution Hindus moved against their own fellow demon-worshippers or against Christians. http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/cwn/2017/august/indian-christians-experience-record-breaking-persecution-in-2017 https://books.google.com.br/books?id=qLNQKGcDIhsC&pg=PA268&lpg=PA268&dq=persecution+jains&source=bl&ots=zrGdDw_qSS&sig=ZPfLZTEWKXsgmjer6hqfr6bAxws&hl=pt-BR&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi33t6kwofYAhWIYd8KHQtfDQoQ6AEIQDAG#v=onepage&q=persecution%20jains&f=false The Christian West has invented freedom of thought and real democracy. Communists, Hinduists, Shintoists and Budhists and other demon-worshippers enjoy total freedom in the West, meanwhile, they presecute Christians in their countries. Shintoists were well-treated in Brazil, why did they rebel against President Dutra’s government?! Demon-worshippers are hypocrites.

42 shrikanthk December 13, 2017 at 12:18 pm

“As opposed to the real world, where gravity works in Bangladesh, but not in Paraguay, and atoms exist in Japan, but not in Italy…”

Haha. In orthodox Hindu philosophy (atleast what is accepted by well over 50% of Hindus), God is one and is omnipresent, and the individual soul is unable to realize its union with the universal soul due to ignorance. God is also formless (Nirguna) as per this philosophy, though people can seek union with the divine by leveraging deities.

You have a lot of reading to do.

43 A Truth Seeker December 13, 2017 at 12:25 pm

I see, Gos pd is one and omnipresent, but you want one demon-worshipping sect per village… I prefer the Truth to be preached to all.

44 A Truth Seeker December 13, 2017 at 12:25 pm

I see, God is one and omnipresent, but you want one demon-worshipping sect per village… I prefer the Truth to be preached to all.

45 You sound exactly like Charlize Theron December 13, 2017 at 10:44 pm

So you pitched a complete game and your proud of being a carpet bagger.

46 Ray Lopez December 13, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Once again, without reading (or planning to read) any of the subject author’s books, I think Kermani’s talking his book. Let him be brave and renounce his religion, even in a mild way, like Nikos Kazantzakis did in Greece, and I might reconsider.

The analogy is: here in southeast Asia I can find any number of ignorant villagers who think the USA is a decadent decaying country, and once they are educated in the Western literary tradition could write a book espousing their anti-US views in a sophisticated manner. Why should I read any of that? That’s probably what Kermani is doing. Novel to be sure, but hardly worth my time. A good book to read is anything non-fiction, rather than some opinion. E.g., right now I’m reading fiction writer Tim Park’s non-fictional book on the Medici (they were very vulnerable, as money cannot buy loyalty for long, sadly). And Vaclav Smil on the mechanical engines behind globalization.

47 darf ferrara December 13, 2017 at 1:21 pm

It seems like Jordan Peterson belongs on the list of influential people as well.

48 You bankers still hate black people December 13, 2017 at 10:48 pm

3 to the fourth is? 81 that’s right. 4 to third is 64, very good, 81-4, is 77, very smart, very good. 81-77 is 4, this is also true. 4×4=16 and 4 to the fourth power is 256, what do they have in common? 76 u twats

49 TC December 13, 2017 at 2:32 pm

I am from Germany amd only know kermani’s Writings on religion, christianity and Islam. It’s all peace and love for him.

I prefer Hamed Abdel-samad. Son of an imam, ex-Muslim, lives now under constant police protection. His writings are critical, but fair and informed. And closer to reality concerning Islam as are kermani’s heart-warming talks and writings.

50 Sid December 13, 2017 at 4:27 pm

Interesting theory, but I disagree. I believe that the influential thinkers of the next generation are even less of yappers: Peter Singer, Robin Hanson, Nick Bostrom, and others of their ilk.

They might be non-political thinkers, but I think political thinkers are overrated anyway. I think the three thinkers above will do more to change the way we think about the world than these religious thinkers.

51 Millian December 13, 2017 at 6:22 pm

Assume yappers are decadent non-religious thinkers like, erm, economics.

52 MM December 13, 2017 at 8:55 pm

We are driven by more religious concepts than we clearly understand -as religion has formed basis of different cultures. Now with globalization as different cultures mingle even more – there is a deep need to figure out how different cultural and religious concepts are creating differences and how they can be reconciled. Hence the importance of religious thinkers- and not because next generation needs spirituality.

53 mb December 14, 2017 at 3:33 am

Why not?

If we are talking about equality and freedom of expression, we cannot strip religious people from having a role. Basically, religion was always a key player all over the world, but what happened due to globalization and societies more openness has just gave people more space, but religion was always there.

54 freethinker December 14, 2017 at 4:09 am

Sadly in India today the religious thinkers, be it Hindu or Muslim, who are becoming more influential are those who spit venom against people of other faiths. If, as Tyler predicts, ” the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones”, we have to pray that they will not be the fanatical types

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