Saturday, April 3, 2010

Engaging with Soroush's Latest

Famously described as the Martin Luther of Islam by The Guardian in 1995, Abdol-Karim Soroush (the pen-name of Hossein Dabbagh) has become a name synonymous with the project of reform in Iran and in contemporary Islam in general. His approach is a radical root-and-branch rethinking that focuses on epistemology and hermeneutics (one only needs to read his earlier works such as ʿIlm chīst, falsafa chīst [What is Science? What is Philosophy], Dānish va arzish[Knowledge and Value], and middle works that usher in the transition such as Farba-tar az idīyūlūjī [Thicker than Ideology]). Since then a number of studies have been published on Soroush (including recently Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s Islam and Dissent in Post-revolutionary Iran published by Tauris in 2008) and a highly active website ( promotes his work; an earlier collection of translations of his work was also published by Oxford in 2000 (Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam, edited by the Sadri brothers). Soroush’s work since the 1970s has been geared towards a more critical reading of religion, inspired by elements of scepticism in the Sufi tradition and a Popperian approach to epistemology. Translations into Arabic, Turkish and Malay as well as other European languages have further disseminated his thought and approach. Following his insightful work in the late 1980s on the expansion and contraction of religious knowledge (Qabż o basṭ-i tiʾūrīk-i sharīʿat) that articulated an important distinction between religion as a noumenal reality and our phenomenal understanding of religious which entailed subjecting religious knowledge to the same processes of verification and falsifiability applied in the sciences, Soroush’s more recent work illustrated in the translations given in this volume under review applies that Popperian insights to the central issues in the study of religion: the nature of prophecy and revelation, the historicity of religious understanding, and religious diversity. The twelve chapters include eight taken from his Basṭ-i tajriba-yi nabavī [Expansion of Prophetic Experience], two from Ṣirāṭ-hā-yi mustaqīm [Straight Paths], and two (not one as stated in the introduction) from Akhlāq-i khudāyān [Morals of the Pious]. These are followed by appendices that replicate the controversy from 2008 between him and Āyatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī, perhaps the leading theologian in the Shiʿi seminary of Qum, on the nature of the Prophet. As a whole, these translations represent the present state of Soroush’s thinking on critical issues of the nature of religion, revelation, and prophecy. They have also further entrenched attitudes against him leading to his self-imposed exile outside of Iran for most of the past decade, a situation unlikely to change following his open support for the Green movement in Iran and his open letter along with other intellectuals in the New York Times in January 2010, following the Ashura violence, calling for end to state repression and later advocating a new referendum in Iran. As many other reformers have come around to similar and even more radical views it is also worth considering what relevant Soroush retains in the contemporary Muslim world.

The main approach in the text is to humanise and historicise religion and prophecy in order to make it accessible and comprehensible to us within our context. The subtitle here is revealing – essays on historicity, contingency and plurality. Along the way a series of sacred cows are slaughtered and red lines transgressed: the prophet is neither infallible nor a scientist who knew everything but deigned to speak to people within their intellectual capacities; the Qurʾan is not the word of God as such; no historical faith can make uncontested claims to the truth of their beliefs hence pluralism must be recognised; religion ought to be practised as a minimal system; and generally jurists, despite their privileges, are mal-equipped to implement the process of contextualising the faith necessary in our times. And much more besides. However, we should not assume that all of this is exciting reformist thinking that breaks new ground. Most of Soroush’s positions are indeed not new in modernist debates. He himself claims that his views on prophecy and revelation are continuous with the philosophical tradition (for example, Avicenna’s theory of prophecy) – this is a claim worth reviewing.

The chapters are introduced with a useful essay by Soroush’s disciple Forough Jahanbakhsh (who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Islamic modernism in Iran including a generous discussion of Soroush’s contribution); she is also the editor of the work and apparently checked through the translations with Soroush himself (whose English is perfectly fluent – the fact that he still writes in Persian is interesting in itself). Jahanbakhsh does a good job of contextualising Soroush’s work within contemporary Muslim thought, comparing him to Arkoun and Abū Zayd, Shabastarī and Rahman all within the twin rubric of the new theology (kalām-i jadīd as it was coined in 1950s Iran) and ‘neo-rationalism’. This latter term is her version of the much contested term ‘neo-Muʿtazilism’ applied to the likes of Abū Zayd. I, for one, do not see how this ‘neo-rationalism’ differs from liberal or reformist thought – it is certainly misleading to claim that it is broadly non-political. She tries to argue that Soroush’s neo-rationalism is the most systematic project of reform available – and even rather counter-intuitively (especially since he is so heavily criticised by feminist thinkers) applied to an issue such as women’s rights. According to Jahanbakhsh, Soroush’s system is balanced, coherent and foundational. There is little doubt that he does arrive at the core of the problem addressing epistemology and hermeneutics – how do we know, and how do we make sense of those texts that are supposed to inform our lives? Where does reason fit? Here is why I am not convinced by the use of the term ‘neo-rationalism’: if all that Soroush is doing is to insist upon rational foundations to ethics, metaphysics and indeed law, and not to see these either as a direct challenge to revelation or to tradition, then I do not see how it differs greatly from the Shiʿi Muʿtazilī tradition of ethics and theology. It is similarly odd to suggest that Soroush is somewhat more critical of tradition than other liberals who embrace it – in fact many liberal thinkers not only criticise tradition but in some cases reject it outright: one thinks of Amina Wadud and Abū Zayd.

Turning to the chapters, they are divided into two sections: the first comprising the first seven chapters deals with prophetic experience and the nature of the text, the second comprising the remaining five concerns reason, love and religiosity. It is shame that this division highlighted in the introduction did not make it to the contents pages. But that is just one of many small errors in the book relating to typography, production, and translation (and I shall have little to say about the latter except that its smoothness is negated by its inaccuracy at times due to the unfamiliarity of the translator with some of the material to which Soroush alludes). Chapter one locates religion and Islam within the prophetic experience and the historical incarnation of the prophetic mission. The Prophet as receptacle and generator was not merely a quasi-omniscient character who translated absolute experiences into concrete realities; rather he was also constituted by the world of his time. This is not the philosophical conception of prophecy advocated by Avicenna and others. The Prophet is wholly human and historical, fallible and a sublime example of experience. The polemical point about the Prophet’s example lying in following his experiences and not just the juridical commands is just that. The perfection of religion signalled towards the end of his life in Qurʾan 5:3 is not a completion but the assignment of a minimum and indeed a beginning. It is in this way that believers imitate and go beyond the Prophet. The Prophetic legacy is manifold but at its heart an experience (along with the scripture, politics and society). Chapters two and three relate to the finality of prophecy as a process. Mysticism and revelatory experiences could be said to have only begun with the Prophet; however, at his demise, the mission came to an end – this is the notion of finality. The addressees of the mission continue to come into existence. Consistent with the school of Ibn ʿArabī, Soroush holds that sanctity and walāya is superior to the missionary function of nubuwwa. Similarly, drawing upon the distinction between the ontological mandate (takwīn) and nomological mission (tashrīʿ) of the Prophet, he argues that the latter constitutes finality but the former which relates to the constant need of experience and a link between the divine and the human remains necessary. In modern times, because of the construction of heresy that lies in the denial of finality of prophecy, the issue is rather sensitive. But the real significance is that finality insists that no one can claim to be a prophet or to transcend the religious dispensation of Islam.

Chapter four tackles the critical issue in reform, namely, separating out the essential from the accidental. To uncover the essential, the accidental aspects that are contextual and historically contingent need to be peeled away. Soroush enumerates eight such accidental features: the Arabic language as the vehicle of communication of the Qurʾan, Arab culture as the context of the revelation, the terms and concepts and indeed language used by the Prophet, the historical events that impinge upon the Qurʾan and the prophetic example, the dialogic context of the communication of revelation between believers and their opponents, the legal precepts of the constructions of Islamic law, historical interventions and ‘fabrications’ introduced into the historical faith, and the contingent understanding of the faith over time. Belief and faith lie in the commitment to essentials. However, in a sense this list of accidentals is rather exhaustive: what is left? Revelatory and prophetic experience? If the essence of religion lies in the goals of the Prophet, how can we understand them? Then the further question arises: how is it meaningful to believe in them if the only means of accessing them that we have is contingent and historically and linguistically constructed like this? On the face of it, distinguishing between the essential and accidental seems sensible: but the problem for the believer is whether once one has peeled away all those layers of the accidental there is anything left at all. At what point does scepticism lead to atheism? Chapter pursues this theme by attempting to define whether religion is maximal or minimal. One of the key claims of Islamism is to insist that religion is maximalist and all-embracing in its essential and accidental features reconciled to the modern world. An eternal, viable and perfect faith must be defined in minimal terms based on its essence – but the same objection remains.

Chapters six and seven shift from religion to religions and address the question of pluralism from a negative and a positive perspective. The former denotes a way of understanding religious approaches to other traditions through the prism of inclusivism – the denial of the truth of other traditions implies a denial of the success of prophetic missions. The latter accounts for a nominalist approach of the different approaches of religious leaders and traditions whose truth and salvation is relevant to them and them alone. Diversity of understanding of texts and diversity of understanding of experiences underlie pluralism. He positively approves of Hickian pluralism based on the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena. Besides, different interpretations of faith are multiple and contingent just as the understanding of a particular faith is (following his earlier insight from the 1980s). The odd claim is that no Muslim group can claim to have pure Islam nor does any religion possess any purity. One wonders how this position can fail to lapse into relativism – which it does. However, for Soroush relativism and pluralism do not lead to the collapse of faith in society since belief is not reasoned but flourishes in a pluralistic and ideological context. Does this amount to a non-reductive pluralism? In the conversation reproduced in chapter seven, Soroush attempts to distinguish his critical rationalism from relativism based on his cause/reason dichotomy in epistemology. For him, relativism does not pertain in science; in religion, he advocates a hermeneutical pluralism. Plurality of truth concerns taking intrinsic notions of truth and falsehood seriously. So why should one promote a particular religion? Soroush’s answer is somewhat surprising – he does not invoke religious experience or prophetic experience but rather invokes the idea of artistic expression and the desire to manifest and disseminate beauty.

The five chapters of part two shift from epistemology to the practice of religion in the world. Chapter eight discusses types of religiosity. He sets aside two sets of binary oppositions – pragmatic/instrumental and discursive/reflective – in favour of experiential religiosity. But the main contribution is to open up ways of being religious, a theme developed in the subsequent chapters. Chapter nine focuses on what it means to follow the Prophet. Setting aside theocracy or nomocracy, he argues that once reason enters into revelation, secularisation is inevitable. Soroush along with other reformers is well known for advocating a secular state in Iran, and this chapter details the theory behind the position. Experiential religiosity needs to be revived and rituals conducted in the pursuit of encouraging it. Chapter ten is a short description of the prophetic address and the insistence that following the prophet ought to lie in more than following his commandments. Once again one gets the impression that Soroush is attempting to effect an ethical turn in religiosity and the process of following the prophet. Chapter eleven examines the relationship between faith and hope. Faith is more than belief. Grounded in religious experience it is a cause for hope in the transcendent. Soroush acknowledges that one could dispute the authenticity of the experience but in response seems to lapse into a mystical affirmation. The final chapter on the key notion of walāya, central to Sufi and Shiʿi Islam, seems to amount to a call to an ethical turn and a warning against reducing faith to adherence to legal precepts. The appendices deal with the controversy over Soroush’s views on prophetic infallibility and the composition of the Qurʾan.

Overall, the collection is a good illustration of the importance of Soroush’s later work and demonstrates how it relates to the earlier work up to the early 1990s. The central and controversial postulations presented are ones which many will dispute, believer and non-believer. Others will even take issue with the tone in which he addresses sanctified issues and persons such as the Prophet. But Soroush still challenges us to think deeply about the nature of faith, how we arrive at faith and to what end do we hold faith. In the spirit of both the hermeneutical pluralism he espouses and the critical rationalism he advocates, it is right and proper for us to disagree vehemently with him. Central objections remain: how do we know what is truly essential in religion? How do we ascertain whether religious expression is genuine? If truth is meaningful and precise (beyond theories of correspondence of course) in philosophy and science, why can it not be such in the study of religion taken in the universal sense (and not just in terms of a particular tradition)? Separating out the mutable from the immutable will always be a problem – and Soroush is partly correct: his theory of revelation does have foundation in Avicenna (even if one cannot map the one upon the other) and his distinction between essential and accidental similarly has roots in both Sufi and Safavid thought. I still feel that Soroush does raise a critical point: far too many Muslims still fail to understand the event and process of revelation and what the Qurʾan means and ought to mean for an engaged believer living in this world. The work of Mujtahid Shabistarī to my mind is an excellent account of this focusing on the hermeneutics but thus far none of his work has really been translated into English. One still feels an engagement with Soroush is important – but does his tone and politics increasingly make it difficult for people to take him seriously, not least in Iran?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Universalism, not pluralism - some thoughts

There is little disputing that we live in a world of many faiths, of many ways and modes of life, practice and doctrinal and truth claims that appear to clash and contradict one another. Far too often identity formation is crystallised in the crucible of conflict and alterity. These traditions of living include not just the Abrahamic faiths that are central to the making of Europe, but other types of theistic and non-theistic belief systems as well as those that mimic or seek to replace religions such as secularism and scientism. The fact of religious diversity and in particular the identity politics and the political theology that arises out of these conflicts seems to pose challenges to people of faith, especially those who make exclusive claims to the truth and salvation of their tradition. The common responses in theology and philosophy of religion to this diversity are threefold relating to both the epistemology of the truth claims articulated in traditions and to the soteriology of the afterlife that many of these faiths postulate. Many conservatives affirm the exclusivism of their faith: it is only the truth claims of their doctrinal system that are valid and only their faith that is salvifically efficacious. Other faiths are false and ineffective (or inefficient) in securing salvation for their believers. In some ways, while this seems an easy option, it is also quite difficult to defend rigorously unless one lowers the threshold of justified belief or warrant for belief for one’s own tradition whilst expecting more of others. Inconsistencies arise and one wonders whether it is easy to separate out a judgment of salvation of the other from one’s ethical stance towards the other. Other theologians posit an inclusivist approach to other faiths: while affirming the truth and salvific efficacy of their own tradition, they allow for the possibility of truth and salvation to pertain to other faiths but in the terms of the faith which they espouse and thus annex the beliefs of others. A common example of this is the notion found in Christianity that non-Christians can be truthful, do good deeds and may even attain salvation because the Holy Spirit may still act through them involuntarily or unwittingly. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not take the truth claims of the other, on their own terms, seriously. Also, exclusivism and inclusivism share the same assumption about the singularity of the truth of one’s own tradition. The third option arising out of Kantian suspicions of exclusive claims and access to truth and direct experience suggests an attitude of pluralism: the multiplicity of faith systems articulate different truth claims and salvific claims that are compatible insofar as we live in a relativistic world in which no one can claim the exclusive access to The Truth. Pluralism therefore suggests that the ontology of religious diversity entails an epistemological and ethical commitment to plurality, not least because it insists that it thus avoids conflict – the historical experience of religiously sanctioned and founded warfare in conflict in Europe is a key determinant in the formation of this position.

The present book under review partly arises out of a pluralist sentiment but influenced by modes of Sufi hermeneutics and perennial approaches to truth and reality argues for a fourth way to respond to religious diversity: universalism of Islam whilst acknowledging its particularism and that of other traditions. Shah-Kazemi’s work is an attempt to draw upon the resources of Sufi scriptural reasoning to produce a rigorous defence of Islam as a privileged and universal tradition that recognises others on their own terms whilst eschewing the three paths of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. He argues that we need to move beyond polemics and diatribes because the Qurʾan itself affirms the truth and message of other prophets (and since every people in the world is considered to have received revelation this amounts to a recognition of their traditions of belief), it affirms the truth and salvation of those who adhere to a minimal belief in the divine and in the afterlife including explicitly non-Muslim categories of believers, it recognises religious diversity as a moral competition in which different people of faith outdo each other in pursuit of good, and it denies that different faiths traditions necessarily clash and that religions lead to warfare. More than this, he critically suggests a move not just against exclusivism but to go beyond pluralism: a pluralistic hermeneutics of the text actually entails the recognition of different interpretations and their validity in their contexts including exclusivist readings. Herein lies one of the key tensions in the work to which I will return.

The book comprises an introduction on the contemporary context we live and dialogue that it entails, four chapters that develop the argument and a short epilogue on the Bosnian ‘model’ of co-existence and the need for us to remember and share good practice. The introduction begins with a recognition that 9/11 has fundamentally changed our world and reoriented people to the Qurʾan to ‘make sense of what happened’. Shah-Kazemi wants to re-appropriate the Qurʾan for spiritual, ethical and universal ends, snatching it away from the clutches of ideology and ‘political’ Islam. This represents a continuity of his traditionalist approach towards spirituality and away from ideology, privileging the immutable and transcendent and placing the transient and modern in its ‘rightful’ place. Consistent with his perennialism, drawing from the thought of Frithjof Schuon is the notion that tolerance and inter-subjectivity need to be founded upon transcendent norms and points of meeting: the ‘true’ religious tradition of Islam is both universal and particular. Clearly, perennialist metaphysics lie at the heart of the ethics, epistemology and even politics that Shah-Kazemi espouses in the work. Since the study involves readings of the Qurʾan, chapter one advocates a Sufi hermeneutics of the school of Ibn ʿArabī (and indeed of the perennialist masters) against the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ offered by the neo-Nietzschean postmodern tradition represented by Derrida and Ricoeur (and some of those influenced by them such as Arkoun). The Sufi tradition is complex, graded and open to the other, embracing the other while articulating its own historical particularity. For Shah-Kazemi, against reform minded Muslim thinkers, traditional hermeneutics does not privilege historical precedents but represents a more rigorous means of understanding the text than postmodern approaches, an ethical defence of tradition that draws upon MacIntyre (but not Gadamer). At the core of Sufi hermeneutics lies taʾwīl and the interpretation of tradition rooted in direct experience, explicitly denied by both Kantians and postmoderns. While one does expect the chapter to provide an exhaustive analysis of comparative hermeneutics (and one expects the author to be selective in favour of his argument), postmodern hermeneutics is given rather short shrift. Derrida is dismissed far too easily and the fruitful approach of Catholic postmodern philosophers such as Richard Kearney, Jean-Luc Marion and John Caputo not engaged at all, figures who have important insights on the nature of faith, encounter, revelation and scripture. In his position that the hermeneutics of Ibn ʿArabī is both inclusive and exclusive, Shah-Kazemi perpetuates the insight of William Chittick in his earlier Imaginal Worlds (SUNY Press, 1994).

Chapter two develops the notion of the encounter with the other rooted in the metaphysics of reality and hermeneutics of Sufism articulated in chapter one. The ontological imperative of the Sufi reading of Islam’s central doctrine of tawḥīd is taken to entail the embrace of the other as part of the whole. One reality suggests the negation of duality and alterity which would raise a problem for dialogue. However, the Sufi tradition does not posit a simplistic, even substantive, monism. The transcendence of God alongside his immanence expressed in the divine names and signs suggest that an unreflective monism would not be a fruitful understanding of tawḥīd. Rather, they point towards a position of seeing the many in light of the one, the idea of a hermeneutics of tashkīk or graded and multiple singularity expressed by the Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā (d. c. 1635). This notion of degrees of reality and degrees of interpretation is implicit in the school of Ibn ʿArabī. Dialogue therefore emerges out of the dynamic between the degrees of reality, and between the ‘faces’ of God, aspects of his majesty and beauty (jalāl, jamāl, yin/yang). Interfaith dialogue is an expression of this metaphysics and transcends the literal contradictions of the differing truth claims of dogmatic theological traditions with respect to reality and the afterlife. The acceptance of the medieval coincidentia oppositorum as a mode of transcending the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction will mean that epistemologists will find it hard to see in this chapter a serious foundation for a universalist and particularist reading of reality.

Chapter three brings the focus to Islam as the religious tradition that makes manifest the insight that God has both an exclusive and inclusive face. Unity and diversity, exclusivity and inclusivity are complicit and not contradictory. This is the principle that Shah-Kazemi calls uniting the contradictories (al-jamʿ bayn al-ḍiddayn). Much of the chapter is taken up with the Sufi exegesis of the religion of God (dīn Allāh) and the linked notion of the faith of the ḥanīf. The distinction is between absolute and particular faith. Shah-Kazemi denounces the vanity of chauvinism that reads a particular Islamic identity into the Qurʾanic text in search of normativity. But that does not preclude reading particularism into universalism. He allows for the distinction in two ways, separating out theological exposition from spiritual vision, and distinguishing the ontological mandate (takwīn) from the normative import (tashrīʿ) of the divine will.

The final chapter entitled dialogue, diatribe or daʿwa engages with intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue and addresses the debate between the universalism of Nasr and the relativistic pluralism of Hick. Upholding the normativity of Islam and denying truth and salvation to others is not compatible. The aim of the universalist in dialogue should be the pursuit of beauty and truth not the triumph of one’s tradition. Universalism, and not triumphalist supercessionism becomes the mission. Along the way, Shah-Kazemi cites two examples in different directions that seem to him wrong-headed: the first if Gavin D’Costa’s Christian exclusivism (having shifted from an earlier inclusivism) based on the need to be true to one’s tradition, and the second is Abdulaziz Sachedina’s embrace of an almost relativistic pluralism in the name of the tradition. For Shah-Kazemi, the actual authority of the traditional Muslim ʿulema lies in the affirmation of beautiful discourse and promotion of a universalism that is respectful of difference. The alternative, as he rightly says, to a dialogue of engaged moral agents seeking the good is bloody and violent conflict. Surrendering Islam to the violent extremists whose theology is rooted in violent exclusivism both intra- and inter-faith is a disaster. The epilogue concludes with Bosnia as an expression of the Sufi universalism espoused torn apart by this very exclusivist conflict.

The Other in the Light of the One is a courageous and thought-provoking deployment of Ibn ʿArabī in a highly relevant context. There are basically two theses: inter-subjective ethics must be predicated on metaphysics and hermeneutics that recognise and enhance universality as well as particularity; and the way out of the exclusivist-inclusivist’s argument about truth and salvation is not to advocate a relativistic, postmodern pluralism but to respect the claims made in pursuit of a universal goal of beauty and the good. He therefore distances himself from the pluralist, but also interestingly and subtly from the perennialist by insisting upon the right for the Muslim universalist to privilege concurrently his own tradition’s truth and salvation. For the perennialist, different paths to truth are parallel and equal from their source to their end, true to their own tradition, its hermeneutics and its ethics. And as we have seen with MacIntyre, such a deployment of tradition is often criticised for lapsing into relativism. Shah-Kazemi’s universalist particularism or particular universalism is a step beyond. The basic question is: does it stand up to scrutiny? The logic of the coincidentia oppositorum would render the book practically meaningless to many in philosophy and to those thinking outside of a scriptural matrix. Will it be meaningful to Muslim readers? The espousal of Akbarian metaphysics and hermeneutics is well and good; however, by permitting particularism within universalism, how can one avoid the flourishing of types of totalising and monopolising exclusivist readings of the Qurʾan that prevail in contemporary Islam, regardless of the existence of open-minded traditional ʿulema whom Shah-Kazemi champions? Finally, why should one pander to the expectations of the post-9/11 world and Muslim ‘scripto-centrists’ who insist that every meaning needs to be extracted directly from the Qurʾan, understood as deracinated text, total, absolute and singular? Surely, the one central feature of ‘traditional Islam’ is a logocentric concern with the deus revelatus in person of the prophet and saint on whose authority the Qurʾan speaks to us, in itself an expression of a Christological idea of revelation?

Islamophobia and Biopolitics in the Age of Empire

Text of a lecture I gave back in November at SOAS:


We live in the age of Empire, of clashes of power and identity politics, of self-affirmations and subjugations, and above all in an age marked by the most violent forms of othering, manipulating and controlling lives through the violence of our actions and our words. If politics is the management of conflict but ultimately of war by ‘other means’, then its most extreme form is biopolitics, governmental and power-dominated forms of total imposition on humans reducing them to their ‘bare life’, stripping them of their rational and political agency and advocating the precariousness of their passivity. The late Michel Foucault, who did much to advocate a new style of politics by diagnosing and excavating the modern problem of the self located in its bare zoology, famously inverted the Aristotelian maxim in his magisterial History of Sexuality:

For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question [Foucault 1976: 188].

Biopolitics and the exercise of biopower is the critical context within which to place any understanding of the twin phenomena of radical and violent othering that we call Islamophobia and Anti-semitism, as forms of subjugating the bare lives of Jews and Muslims. As such, it is not of primary theological concern with apologies for the title of this panel and indeed to my colleagues here. But then as the late Jacques Derrida and others have noticed, contemporary intellectual life does not compartmentalise theology to the sole concern of religious studies but to forms of inquiry that have critical relevance to philosophy and indeed politics [de Vries 1999]. Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-semitism should therefore be about confronting biopolitics and seeking means for a reinvigoration of active politics which promotes human agency. Today, I propose to do precisely that by analysing the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s use of Foucault’s notion of biopolitics in the construction of his own theory of the bare life of humans and the state of exception which defines the normativity of political life, one in which crucially the concentration camp, the most extreme reality of Anti-semitism and symbol of Islamophobia is no longer the exception. In particular, I will analyse his groundbreaking study Remnants of Auschwitz, his notion of radical agency that derives from the examination of the notion of the ‘Muselmann’ in the camps, and his concept of the witness and memory of the events. Overcoming radical discrimination is entangled with the need for communities to bear witness to their histories and to carry their voices and silences across generations. Islamophobia and anti-semitism are challenges and problems for political thinkers and it is in that context that I want to examine these phenomena.


But before we move on with Agamben, we need to return to Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and sovereignty to understand the philosophical context. Although Agamben draws upon Foucault’s notions of biopolitics and biopower, Foucault’s own rejection of sovereignty is quite significant. He wishes to transcend traditional notions of sovereignty that are implicated in the concept of European monarchies and the nation-state, in which sovereignty defines legitimacy, acts as arbitration above points of conflict and embodies law and standpoints of judgement [Joseph Rouse in Gutting (ed) 1994: 100–101]. Foucault’s concern as articulated in his History of Sexuality is that ‘in thought and political analysis, we have still not cut off the head of the king’ because the theory of sovereignty remained central as an ideology of right and as the organisation of jurisprudence [Foucault 2003: 36]. Power is exercised on the dual foundation of sovereignty and the mechanics of discipline [Foucault 2003: 38]. Sovereignty cannot deal with multiplicity of powers but seeks unity [Foucault 2003: 43]. Later on, once his rejection of sovereignty was complete, he became more interested in domination than sovereignty and questions of legitimacy [Foucault 2003: 46]. The politics of domination and bare life raises the issue of civilizational struggles, about which we hear so much these days.
Biopower for Foucault is central to the exercise of the state’s sovereign power:

The very essence of the right of life and death is actually the right to kill: it is at the moment when the sovereign can kill that he exercises his right over life. [Foucault 2003: 240].

It was critically in the 18th century that we saw a shift from the right to take life or let someone live to one of ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die because of the nature of the social contract and the rise of modes of political techniques of control [Foucault 1976: 186; Sublon 2005: 153; cf. Agamben 1999b: 159].
Biopolitics is therefore a discipline and power to reduce humans to mere life and biological processes and statistics.

Now that power is decreasingly the power of the right to take life, and increasingly the right to intervene to make live or once power begins to intervene mainly at this level in order to improve life by eliminating accidents, the random element, and deficiencies, death becomes, insofar as it is the end of life, the term, the limit, or the end of power too. [Foucault 2003: 248]

Foucault’s main point fits this within his notion that sovereignty is increasingly dead as a concept of legitimacy and is being replaced by discipline and regulatory power. Biopolitics draws upon the Greek distinction between two terms to render life: zoē and bios, the former denotes unqualified bare life, while the latter is the life of the citizen in the polis [Agamben 2000: 2].
This distinction lies at the heart of Western political thought for Agamben. He rejects Foucault historical genealogy of sovereignty and politics. He sees the world especially in the post-9/11 period as a permanent state of exception in which draconian anti-terrorism laws have reduced humans to their bare life, their zoē, devoid of agency and in which the sovereign power of the state is exercised and defined by its ability, drawing upon Carl Schmitt, to decide on the ‘state of exception’ [Agamben 2005a: 1]. Necessity, contingency, emergency powers, the Patriot Act and so forth are mere names for what classical jurists called the state of exception. The modern nation state, thus, has a biopolitical ‘vocation’. At the heart of his theory is the notion of the homo sacer, the Roman legal notion of human life which is included in the juridical order ‘solely in the form of its exclusion, that is, of its capacity to be killed’ [Agamben 1998: 8]. The paradox of life in modern states converges upon an ambiguity between the good life and the not-good life of Aristotelian politics, of recognising the freedom and happiness of citizens in their very subjugation. It is the nature of the modern even democratic nation state that:

the fundamental activity of sovereign power is the production of bare life as the originary political element and threshold of articulation between nature and culture [Agamben 1998: 181].

It was already in Homo Sacer that Agamben introduced the relationship between his theory of biopolitics and the concentration camp as the biopolitical paradigm of modernity and as the nomos of biopolitical space in the world [Agamben 1998: 119–88]. Significantly, Agamben argues that:

What happened in the camps so exceeds the juridical concept of crime that the specific juridico-political structure in which those events took place is often simply omitted from consideration. The camp is merely the place in which the most absolute conditio inhumana that has ever existed on earth was realized [Agamben 1998: 166]

His interest therefore lies in the political structures that produce such a phenomenon and the types of agency and passivity expressed in that space. It is therefore to the camp that we now turn.


One of Agamben’s most interesting and disturbing works is Remnants of Auschwitz. It is an extended commentary on the notion of testimony and the liminal region between humanity and inhumanity. The concentration camp expresses for Agamben a ‘space of exception’, a structure within which the state of exception (defined in terms of his understanding of sovereignty) is permanently realized. For Agamben, the camp is therefore the ultimate symbol and manifestation of biopolitics that reduces humans to their bare life:

Inasmuch as its inhabitants have been stripped of every political status and reduced completely to bare life, the camp is also the most absolute biopolitical space that has ever been realized – a space in which power confronts nothing other than pure biological life without any mediation [Agamben 2000: 40]

Any structure, therefore, that replicates such biopolitical objectification of humans is at the very least a virtual concentration camp. Some of his earliest notes on this topic were written in the early 1990s when camps did in fact reappear in the former Yugoslavia populated by, of course significantly, Muslims, humans stripped of every political status and indeed cultural affiliation except for their biological state and indeed their objectification as Muslim.
A number of theorists, following Heidegger, have commented upon the tendency within modernity, within the modern subject and its quest for technology and an interventionist notion of sovereign power to slide towards the limit of mechanised and planned violence that is genocide. During the furore over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1989, the Muslim intellectual and critic Shabbir Akhtar commented upon liberal modernity’s quest to dissolve difference by seeking scapegoats, comparing the image of the Jew in the Holocaust to the Muslim in contemporary Europe. He famously quipped, ‘The next time we see gas chambers in Europe, it will be no surprise to find Muslims in them’. This is a theme upon the notion of the experience of Muslims in Europe who find themselves within a police state, Nazi Germany being the limit of such a case.
It is, therefore, striking that in the work, Agamben’s hero in the quest for an ethics seeking the survival of memory and language is paradoxically the figure of the Muselmann in the camp. Drawing among the testimony of Primo Levi among others, the term Muselmann (Muslim) was used at Auschwitz to denote a passive prisoner who had given up, had no consciousness or conscience, was despised and not an object of sympathy, and was a mere staggering corpse, a bundle of physicality of no consequence [Agamben 1999b: 41–43]. More importantly, he had no agency, no dignity, and was not a survivor who could testify as he was devoid of his humanity. This state of being the Muslim is the limit case, the exception, the Orientalised and objectified Other. Survivors and witnesses speak for the inhuman Muselmann and resent it [Agamben 1999b: 120]. Following Foucault, Agamben argues that racism is the process by which biopower intervenes and marks breaks within the biological continuum of humanity and reintroduces the principle of war into the system of ‘making live’ [Agamben 1999b: 84]. Yet drawing on Levi, it is only the Muselmann as the inhuman who is truly human, a paradox as the witnesses are the mere remnants; at the same time, it is the human being who can survive being a human being [Agamben 1999b: 133]. In this sense, witnesses ‘were’ Muselmanner. Thomas Carl Wall has commented on the central concern of Agamben with inverting passivity; for example, an ontological paradox for Agamben is that a thing is simultaneously itself and its qualities without being the same thing as its qualities [Agamben 1993b: 97–8; Wall 1999: 19]; similarly presence and absence, image and reality [Wall 1999: 153]. The Muselmann is therefore despised and honoured, passive yet active. While all strove to remain human, the Muselmann was seen as having abdicated humanity and dignity. In the fracturing of humanity and subjectivity, he emerges as a figure that is fully human and in control of his subjectivity. Dignity and autonomy were not critical for the retention of humanity; as Agamben says,

Auschwitz marks the end and the ruin of every ethics of dignity and conformity to a norm. The bare life to which human beings were reduced neither demands nor conforms to anything. It itself is the only norm; it is absolutely immanent. And the ‘ultimate sentiment of belonging to the species’ cannot in any sense be a kind of dignity [Agamben 1999b: 69].

It was a state of wretchedness, a final one of complete dehumanisation. And yet because of its existence, a clear and key testimony and articulation of humanity in the face of complete dehumanisation.
But what kind of testimony or witness does the Muselmann represent? For Agamben, testimony is the relation between the sayable and unsayable, but ‘archive’, to which it is juxtaposed, is a system of relations between the said and unsaid [Agamben 1999b: 145]; this is analogous to the radical binaries that Agamben establishes in which the gap between the said and unsaid or rather between voice and language, and between the unwritten and the preface are articulated as key to understanding what we normally understand as philosophy of language or the politics of expression [Agamben 1993a: 6–8]. It also expresses a key feature of Agamben’s philosophy: the primacy and ambiguity of experience over its expression, of infancy over history, the ‘thing itself’ (in Platonic terms – see especially Agamben 1999c, chapter 1) over the manifest object, the deus absconditus over the deus revelatus, and of course of potentiality over actuality. Testimony is normally associated with survival, the ability to live to tell the tale, something which was not the privilege of the Muselmann. However, the Muselmann do the ultimate limit experience; it was his experience of inhumanity that provided the complete witness. On this point, Agamben quotes Primo Levi:

I must repeat: we, the survivors are not the true witnesses…We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority; we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch the bottom. Those who did…have not returned to tell about it, or have returned mute, but they are the Muslims, the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception [Agamben 1999b: 33].

Testimony therefore comes from the eye of the experience, not from the margins or even the outside. It concerns what can be said and what must be said.


There is little doubt that Agamben’s thesis of the state of exception and the homo sacer, and indeed his assertion of the camp as the nomos of a biopolitical world is a hyperbole, indeed a distasteful one to some. We may also disagree vehemently with his post-humanism. I am not arguing that we need to accept it at face value; there are far too many undetermined and unexplained assumptions and wild assertions to consider his argument to be apodictical to use an Aristotelian term. However, the events of the last few years and the responses of states and indeed of those reacting against states in their own form of biopolitics by using their bodies as their only means of agency forces us to consider whether the shift in emphasis in politics away from subjectivity and democracy and towards objectification and the dehumanisations of citizens does require serious attention. Agamben cautions us against thinking that notions of sovereignty are obsolete, that we have moved beyond politics as power that objectifies and controls humans. I have tried to argue that confronting radical forms of subjugation, discipline and order and ultimately othering inherent in the forms of discrimination which we confront in these times and in the idiom of this conference necessitates a serious consideration of the political context in which we live, a consideration that means we not only think about our context and what it means for it to be political but also what it means for us to ‘live’ in the societies in which we live. What is the nature of our life, our power and ability to manipulate ourselves? How can we transcend processes of othering that force us to subjugate and control the other? If anything, Agamben shows us the most pessimistic image of a mirror placed before ourselves. It is the work of political theorists and indeed theologians to replace the mirror of pessimism with a more optimistic one that shows human realization and aspiration at its best, a mirror that allows us to see ourselves in others and realize a co-operative common humanity that defeats the violence of othering.