The Allure of the Anti-modern

The Allure of the Anti-modern
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  1  The Allure of the  “ Anti-modern ” The worth of the legacy of Su 󿬁 sm. It is a fact that Su 󿬁 sm is a deep-rootedand precious tradition. But it is also mystifying and sinisterly ominous[ shum ]. It is a prized treasure, of new and srcinal ideas and literature.Assortment of mysteries of human wonders. However, this cherishedtradition also has a troubling legacy. It is for those who produced thiscultural capital andfor those whohave receivedthis tradition. The destinyof Su 󿬁 sm, that is, the story of those who created this tradition, has bothdazzling moments, but also some dark corners. 1 Abdolhossein Zarrinkub,  The Worth and Legacy of Su 󿬁 sm , 1983 These words hail from Abdolhossein Zarrinkub (1923 – 99),a distinguished Iranian scholar of Islam and Su 󿬁 sm. The above quota-tion is from his book  The Worth and Legacy of Su 󿬁 sm . Zarrinkub, intwo volumes (volume II is called  Trail of the Search for Su 󿬁 sm) , 2 celebrates the Iranian Su 󿬁  and  erfan  (Persian mysticism) traditions,evincing sympathy for Su 󿬁 sm. However, being also a fair-mindedscholar, he routinely maintained a healthy distance from his studytopics. Zarrinkub knew that he could neither uncritically worship thePersian  erfan  nor permit himself to become the unconditional adulatorof the Su 󿬁  tradition. In both his volumes, Zarrinkub makes sure todiscuss the troubling history and  󿬂 aws of major Su 󿬁 󿬁 gures, and theideas they spread, by analyzing their thought in critical detail.Despite his personal interest in and admiration of this cultural tradi-tion, Zarrinkub attempts to remain impartial and avoids making one-sided judgments about Su 󿬁 sm. He writes: 1 Abdolhossein Zarrinkub,  The Worth and Legacy of Su 󿬁 sm , 5th edition (Tehran:Amir Kabir, 1983), p. 151. All translations of quotations are the author's own,unless otherwise stated. 2 Abdolhossein Zarrinkub,  Trail of the Search for Su 󿬁 sm  (Tehran: Amir Kabir,1978). 15 of use, available at Downloaded from IP address:, on 11 Sep 2019 at 12:34:42, subject to the Cambridge Core terms  In fact, throughout the history of Su 󿬁 sm, there were many naïve people, aswell as charlatans. Hence, an arena of claims has unfolded among them[Su 󿬁 s], with many making claims, and others denying them. 3 In a second book on Iranian Su 󿬁 sm,  Trail of a Search , Zarrinkubpoints to the critiques that Iranian and Islamic scholars have made of Su 󿬁 sm. He clearly shows that important critiques of mystical thoughtand Su 󿬁 sm exist in the literary and intellectual history of Iran andIslam. 4 Zarrinkub especially emphasizes social critiques of Su 󿬁 sm,notingthat “ somehavelookedatSu 󿬁 smfromsocial,ethical,orliteraryand historical perspectives. ” 5 He even refers to several contemporaryscholars, such as Mohammad Ghazvini and Ahmad Kasravi, and theircritiques.Iran ’ scomplexhistoricalandliterarycontext – astrongmysticalandspiritual understanding of Islam (in Henry Corbin ’ s idiom, Persian orSpiritual Islam), combined with the cultural prominence of Persianpoetry in its manifold sophistication  –  provided the ideal seedbed fora  󿬂 owering of wild images and  󿬂 irtations with the irrational ina modern world darkened by war, poverty, and disorder. Yet thetwentieth-century appropriation by Westerners and Iranians alike of Iran ’ s heritage as the citadel of modern irrationalism occludes andwhitewashes multiple critical and rationalist streams in Iran ’ s nationaltraditions. This chapter highlights how the irrationalist constructiontook place, in a transnational dynamic based on an anti-modern ideo-logical core that was both barren and capable of responding to humanemotional needs.The role of Su 󿬁  cheerleader was reserved for, and most eagerlyembraced by, certain Western scholars, who celebrated Persian andIslamicspiritualityasarefugefromthesecularliberalismtheydespisedwithinEuropeansociety.ThisEasterntemptationconstitutedanincep-tion in Iranian society that paradoxically fostered a proudly nativistrevolt of indigenous authenticity. These Europeans included the cele-bratedscholarsHenry Corbinand,toa lesserdegree, MichelFoucault,among others. It also included those Iranians who, while studying inthe West, happened to discover  “ mysticism ”  during disorienting 3 Ibid., p. 152. 4 Abdolhossein Zarrinkub,  Continuation of a Search for Su 󿬁 sm in Iran  (Tehran:Amir Kabir, 1983), pp. 9 – 47. 5 Ibid., p. 36. 16  The Allure of the  “ Anti-modern ” of use, available at Downloaded from IP address:, on 11 Sep 2019 at 12:34:42, subject to the Cambridge Core terms  periods in Europe or the United States. With a renewed sense of purpose, they imagined mysticism as integral to their own yearningfor Iranian authenticity. Upon returning to Iran, they bore theEuropean counter-modernist ideologies that would buttress theIslamist revival in its mission to suppress local inauthenticity in left-wing and liberal Iranians. They were either Heidegger ’ s children,including Ahmad Fardid, Daryush Shaygan, et al., or ideological anti-modernists, seeking to re-create  “ traditionalism ”  as an alternative tomodernity for the Iranian situation in contemporary times. SeyedHossein Nasr and Ehsan Naraghi are two important examples. OtherIranianintellectuals,moreradicallyinclined,suchasAhmadKasraviorTaghi Arani, were critical of the political or social use of   erfan.  Theseindividuals were equally critical of the anti-rationalist tendencies, anddisturbing practical implications, of embracing a politicized  erfan .These latter  󿬁 gures, however, have become marginalized.The blandly uncritical celebration of   erfan  by Iranian scholars isa more recent intellectual fashion. This new wave of scholars is aboveall  “ anti-modern ”  and hostile primarily to modern secularism. TheyhailtheIslamofpre-modernPersianSpirituality,aconvenientmeansof vocalizing their hatred of the modern world. 6 Ahmad Fardid ’ s lifelongembrace of   erfan  provides a good example. Fardid preached and cele-brated  erfan  as a moral and conceptual weapon, suitable for under-mining so-called  elm-e hosuli , i.e. rational and analytical thinking.Despite this, he scarcely followed the  “ softer and kinder ”  side of theSu 󿬁 tradition,inlifestyle,politics,orthetreatmentofothers.Asaman,he was dogmatic, harsh, self-centered, and politically reckless.Following the revolution of 1978 – 9, Fardid attacked Mehdi Bazarganand developed a political alliance with Ayatollah Khalkhali. 7 Fardid ’ s intellectual pro 󿬁 le exempli 󿬁 es a certain template. Hisembrace of   “ mysticism ”  derived less from a spiritual sensibility thanfromastrongdesiretorejectmodernisminallitsaspects.Hefoundhismodel in the Heideggerian confrontation with modernity, whosestrange intellectual innovation recast traditional conservatism as the 6 Steven Wasserstrom,  Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade,andHenryCorbinatEranos (PrincetonUniversityPress,1999);MarkSedgwick, Againstthe ModernWorld: Traditionalismand theSecret IntellectualHistory of the Twentieth Century  (Oxford University Press, 2004). 7 FormoredetailsonAhmadFardid ’ spoliticalviewsandactivities,seeMirsepassi, Transnationalism in Iranian Political Thought  , Chapter 8. The Allure of the  “ Anti-modern ”  17 of use, available at Downloaded from IP address:, on 11 Sep 2019 at 12:34:42, subject to the Cambridge Core terms  new radicalism for a troubled twentieth century. It follows that tradi-tional  “ mysticism ”  and contemporary  “ anti-modernism ”  have beeninvested with common core assumptions and sentiments, ina growing transnational movement united by a postmodern revivalistattitude. Mysticism ’ s core elements are well-known: anti-rationalism,and a creative primacy of intuition over empirical science, of spiritual-ityoverthematerial,ofcommunityovertheindividual,andofthelocalover the cosmopolitan. The idea of mysticism, both historically and inits recent  “ spiritual ”  incarnation, overlaps with various anti-moderndiscourses, and this has been especially so in modern Iranian politicalexperience. Indeed, the 1978 – 9 Revolution seems to have produceda new paradigm of popular revolution, attracting a wide section of thetraditional radical left under the rubric of postmodernism. In thisstudy, I want to point to two less-acknowledged similarities:1) Their ambiguous and almost  “ fairytale ” -like language embodiescertain binary opposites: the appeal to beauty and love doubles witha celebration of harsh violence, moral cruelty, and intellectual rigid-ity. The promise of achieving a heightened level of human realitydoubles with the denial of   “ man ”  as a subject or agent, and aninsistence on  “ his ”  being a vehicle for a more transcendental force.A radical general vision for the present time combines with conserva-tive sentiments, with a correspondingly confusing vision for thefuture. The  “ fairytale ”  future is often dif  󿬁 cult to distinguish fromthe past, making the  “ postmodern condition ”  a dead ringer for thehistorical pre-modern.This intellectual ambiguity invests the mystic and anti-modern sen-sibilities with an almost poetic quality, one that is potentially veryattractive. It presents a kind of mystery to be solved, a blank canvasupon which to paint. Simultaneously, it proposes a set of ideas thatpotentially permits everything. In this space, the creative mind canenjoyably thrive in the absence of clear boundaries (social or political).Whatislessoftennotedisthepotentiallytragicpoliticalpossibilitiesof this  󿬁 eld, for it provides a realm for deception and ungoverned power.Michel Foucault ’ s fantastical writings about the 1978 – 9 Revolution,and the possibilities of the Islamic state, are only one sorrowfulexample.2) As attractive as the mystic, anti-modern discourses may appearon an abstract and rhetorical level, they can produce tragic practicalresults and massive violence. It is axiomatic that many totalitarian 18  The Allure of the  “ Anti-modern ” of use, available at Downloaded from IP address:, on 11 Sep 2019 at 12:34:42, subject to the Cambridge Core terms  political movements, leaders, and intellectuals, by invoking theauthentic, the spiritual, and the aesthetic, create the political condi-tions for hell on earth. There is an almost total break between ideasand practice. And, strangely, this is consistent with the type of thinking they advocate. If one is to believe that  “ myth ”  representsthe truth, or, as Henry Corbin argued, that the  “ imaginal ”  is theonly truly objective reality, while the material is disparaged, theneverything is permitted. No compelling reason exists for providinghard evidence or social facts. More importantly, no difference existsbetween lies and empirical truth. In this context, neither truth norreality derives from reason or logic, facts, or evidence, but areinstead intuitively grasped  –  very likely, by the chosen few (asCorbin would have it).As Mark Lilla has argued, these transnational intellectuals viewed “ modernity ”  as a catastrophe, experiencing nostalgia for earlierperiods, infused with mystic fervor, when societies were coherentwholes invested with rich symbolic orders. The thirst for redemp-tion has repeatedly pushed public intellectuals to embrace author-itarian regimes, secular or religious, because they promise to resolvethe grand themes of creation, mortality, the soul, the sacred, and theEnd of Time. Ernst Bloch embraced the German DemocraticRepublic as the real New World, and, accepting an East Germanteaching post, declared the country the ful 󿬁 llment of the messianicpromise of Moses and Marx. 8 This political recklessness culmi-nated, in 1957, in his being banned from teaching in EastGermany, despite publicly abasing himself before the regime. In1961, he was forced to seek asylum in West Germany. There,denouncing Western capitalism and the Eastern bloc, he becamea university-based guru for radical students, urging packed lecturehalls to reject the existing world and focus upon the horizon of the “ not-yet-conscious ”  world, which was to emerge from the junglesof the developing world. Bloch ’ s intellectual and political pro 󿬁 le isstrikingly comparable to his Iranian anti-modern and millennialcontemporaries, who similarly blundered into naïvely utopian com-plicity with a regime prepared to destroy them. 8 Mark Lilla,  The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West  (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), p. 291. The Allure of the  “ Anti-modern ”  19 of use, available at Downloaded from IP address:, on 11 Sep 2019 at 12:34:42, subject to the Cambridge Core terms
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