Antidote to Modern Nihilism: The Quranic Perception of Time


Antidote to Modern Nihilism: The Qur’anic Perception of Time
Dr. Parvez Manzoor
The problem with history is intractability: it proffers an obscure, if not a totally opaque, vision of the human condition. Whether conceived as a record of human past or perceived as the matrix of human existence, history, as science and as philosophy, reveals the unfathomable ends of Man. As science, it collapses before the question of meaning; as philosophy it exhausts itself overcoming the antinomies of reason. While to be human and to strive for a meaningful existence is to impose on the infinity of the world a structure and a form, to bestow it a finitude and a temporality, the paradox is that such a partial world of history and society can only be constructed from some premonition of the whole. It can only be derived from a cosmology that is trans-societal and trans-human. History, in other words, acquires its meaning from a perspective which itself is meta-historical. Or, at least, this was true of all traditional civilizations.

Modernity however is a different breed. As culture, it creates its meaning by obdurately refusing to scan beyond the horizons of man and by confining the meaning of history to history itself. Little wonder that by so doing, it also abandons the quest for the ultimate meaning. Despite the lusciousness of its empirical pastures, the modern epistemological project thus ends in the normative wasteland of nihilism. All modern discourses, notwithstanding their dissimilar disciplinary moorings and disparate ideological assumptions, amply testify to the suffocating embrace of nihilism which wrecks all modern courtship with the ‘historical truth’. Indeed, even modernist Islamic thought, resolutely committed to preserving a normative vision, seems unable to avoid the unsettling gaze of modern nihilism.

It is now generally recognized that the biblical concept of history, when freed of its transcendent moorings and secularized, inaugurates the reign of relativism and nihilism. Nihilism, of course, represents the reverse side of the modern, secularized consciousness; the obverse one, which is displayed far more often as the real face of modernity, reflects the conflict between science and religion, reason and faith; or between secular history and redemptive history (Heilsgeschichte). The upshot of this nihilism however is that the story of humanity becomes ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ In stead of the humanity, it is the nation that takes on the challenge of making history and of defining the goal of collective existence. For, while partial history, history as the march of a nation or a state in time, may retain some semblance of meaningfulness, universal history (Weltgeschichte), history as the story of humanity, looses all claims to meaning when viewed empirically and without the imposition of any pre-conceived pattern. It opens up that fateful divide between the real and the rational, between history and theory that, pace Hegel, cannot be overcome. Consequently, world-history either remains a philosophical theory that is without any collateral in actual history; or it becomes a historical chronology that is devoid of all normative meaning. In short, on closer reflection, ‘the philosophy of history’ reveals itself either as history and facts, or as philosophy and norms. No wonder that from within the perspective of secular history, from the cognitive premises of immanentism, the antinomy of norm and history can never be overcome and the demons of relativism and nihilism can never be defeated.

True enough, the revelation is presented in the Hebrew Bible as the participation of God on the side of the Israelites in actual history. Such a claim was instrumental in fostering a view of history (of a specific nation) as sacred. Or, as expressed by a modern philosopher: ‘Since biblical times, the Western, Judeo-Christian world has found Transcendence in history. This has happened for better: in the midst of human historical world was found a Transcendence other than human and higher-than-human which gave meaning, if not to all of history, so at any rate to crucial, epoch-making events in it.’ (Emil L. Fackenheim: ‘Transcendence in Contemporary Culture’, in H.W. Richardson & D.R. Cutler (Ed.): Transcendence, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969. P. 144.) Leaving aside the moral discomforts of a universal God taking sides in history, or the logical incoherence of transcendence within immanence, there’s no denying that not only is the biblical proclivity for historicizing the truth, or sacralizing history, always under the assault of the immanentist, secular consciousness (the sin of idolatry in its own parlance), it also becomes vulnerable to the judgment of the empirical vision, once the latter has freed itself from its sacred moorings. Or, stated differently, as long as the premise that God has a special covenant with the children of Israel remains valid, biblical history retains both its ‘historicity’ and legitimacy. However, once that premise is set aside, as happens in the Enlightenment’s secularized version of the universal history, the truth of the Bible itself comes under the scrutiny of historicizing sciences which, paradoxically, care nothing for the kind of transcendence which is the sine qua non of the biblical vision of history.

Fortunately, the Qur’an has a view of history, revelation, truth and man that avoids the conundrums and aporias of biblical Heilsgeschichte. To start with, the Qur’anic perspective, whether theological, cosmological or anthropological, is that of unity. However, this unity is not ontological; for God remains distinct from his creation, but it is a unity of purpose, goal and meaning that all are expressions of God’s will. From this perspective, both the  concept of history and that of nature appear problematical. The created world (nature) and the temporal one of man (history) are certainly real, indeed even indispensable for the fulfilment of man’s mandate of vicegerency. Nevertheless, the Greek concept of “nature”, whether postulating a self-contained, self-sufficient, self-regulating universe, or signifying the intrinsic disposition of a thing to obey immanent laws, is alien to the Qur’anic worldview. The world exists, according to the Qur’an, not due to any intrinsic necessity but because of the gratuitous act of a transcendent will: it is radically contingent rather than naturally necessary. The same is true of history: the very concept of history – pure immanence and temporality that is self-referential and immediately accessible - is missing in the Qur’an. History does not have any claim to any autonomous inner logic which must perforce follow its logical course. Whatever its other benefits, such a deterministic view of history is compatible with man’s moral freedom.

As befits the transcendental worldview of the Qur’an, the addressee of its discourse is a universal, archetypical and trans-historical human being. Even the covenant that God has with man is primordial and is contracted prior to the advent of the historical time. Man enters his/her historical existence only after submitting to the sovereignty of God (7:172). Further, Adam, the first man, stands for all humanity and inasmuch as he is recognized as the first prophet, mankind has never been without divine guidance. Hence, when the Qur’an speaks of historical men and women, especially former prophets, it does so without the least regard to chronology. The Qur’an does not concern itself with the historical succession of messengers and prophets but with the proclamation of the unity of the trans-historical revelation. Neither does it make any distinction between former prophets. The unity and identity of divine guidance, available to all prophets and preached by all of them, renders all historical, ethnic and geographical distinctions superfluous.

The very notion of faith, Islam (Surrender to God) also presupposes a trans-historical and transcendent disposition of man (fitra). Surrender to God is not something that may be realized, gradually and progressively, within the flux of time. It is an instant decision of the individual soul: one either surrenders himself/herself to God or one doesn’t. Consequently, God’s guidance (huda) is not a progressive march towards a single, climactic event, but a here-and-now that is forever eternal, forever available to every human soul. Thus, a modern Muslim may confidently pronounce that the Qur’anic idea of revelation is trans-historical:

‘It is also impossible on the basis of the goal and mean (of divine guidance) to construct a history of salvation which is gradually realized either in a Christian or non-Christian [secular] sense, neither Muhammad (S) nor the Muslims thought of such a possibility. For the Koran recognizes no original sin and no corresponding redemption; hence it presents no salvation history comparable to the Christian tradition. But if salvation is understood, as it is in the prophetic religions, as “the individual’s encounter through faith and grace with a personal God”, then salvation is contained precisely in the human surrender to God (Islam) and that divine guidance (huda) which according to the Koran remains or should remain forever unaltered by time and history. Accordingly, there’s no reason to conceive of revelation as something temporal or historical.’ (Abdoldjavad Falaturi: ‘Experience of Time and History in Islam’, in Annemarie Schimmel & Abdoldjavad Falaturi: We Believe in One God. Burns and Oates, London, 1979. P 65. Emphasis added).

Far more radical than the Qur’anic disregard of history as a chronicle of events, is its perception of time. Time, according to the Qur’an, is not the perpetual flux that results in a linear or cyclical conception of temporality, but an eternal present that always carries with it the possibility of surrender to God (Islam). Again, the Greek term for times, Xronos, which is usually translated as zaman (not of Arabic origin) does not occur in the Qur’an. The proper expression for time in the Qur’an is, of course, waqt. According to Falaturi, an analysis of the term shows that ‘it does not imply progressive enactment, and that it has no regulatory character, as is the case with Xronos (zaman), a character which every concept of history presumes as its basis. Waqt is rather spatial, a self-enclosed, static, unalterable where of an event….. In waqt, …. [in] an ever-present area of events created by God, all events are independent of one another, yet have a direct relation to their omnipotent, omnipresent Creator.’ (pp. 68-9). It is the consciousness of the transcendence of God which shatters, as it were, the fluid temporality of ordinary experience into an infinity of static ‘nows’

Another comment by a perceptive non-Muslim also reinforces this insight about the ‘atomistic’ nature of the Qur’anic temporality. Commenting on Surah 18 (Al-Kahf), Norman O. Brown, a non-specialist on Islam but a celebrated American thinker of our age (1913-2002), makes the following statement: ‘Massignon calls the Sura 18 the apocalypse of Islam. But sura 18 is a résumé, epitome of the whole Koran. The Koran is not like the Bible, historical, running from Genesis to Apocalypse. The Koran is altogether apocalyptic. The Koran backs off from that linear organization of time, revelation, and history which became the backbone of orthodox Christianity and remains the backbone of the Western culture after the death of God. Islam is wholly apocalyptic or eschatological, and its eschatology is not teleology. The moment of decision, the Hour of Judgment, is not reached at the end of a line, nor by a predestined cycle of cosmic recurrence; eschatology can break out at any moment. Koran 16:77: “To Allah belong the secrets of the heavens and the earth, and the matter of the Hour is as the twinkling of an eye, or it is nearer still.” In fully developed Islamic theology only the moment is real.” (Norman O Brown: ‘The Apocalypse of Islam’, in Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. University of California Press, 1991. P 86.) Brown is also cognizant that the rejection of linearity involves rejection of narrative and that ‘the Koran breaks decisively with that alliance between the prophetic tradition and materialistic historicism – “what actually happened” – which set in with the materialistically historical triumph of Christianity.’ (87). Finally, in his judgment, ‘Islam is committed by the Koran to project a metahistorical plane on which the eternal meaning of historical events is disclosed.’ (88). Or, returning to our own query, the transcendent worldview of the Qur’an is not affected a whit by the cognitive haggling between archaeology and the Bible which.

The cult of history is a modern heresy, just as the philosophy of history is a supremely arrogant and narcissistic form of reflection on the meaning and goal of western civilization. In postmodern times, however, the grand narratives of both the Christian redemptive history (Heilsgeschichte) and the Enlightenment’s universal history (Weltgeschichte) have been abrogated by the new logic of globalization and Empire. The message today is that history has come to an end and the current hierarchy of powers represents the permanent state of humanity. And yet, humanity’s search for a meaningful, moral existence has not come to a halt. It is the Muslim’s duty to delineate the Qur’anic vision of history and time – the purpose and meaning of human existence - in such a way that it acts as an antidote to the modern form of nihilism which is the principal source of the spiritual and moral anguish of our times.