Writing & the Origin of Ideas
Islamdom suffers from civilisational bankruptcy. We must write our way out.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.
But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Islamdom suffers from civilisational bankruptcy.
A century after Malik Bennabi diagnosed our ailment, we are no closer to solving our paucity of ideas. Bennabi’s chief insight was that the production of ideas was a prerequisite to a sovereign and vibrant culture. Islamic civilisation — or what remains of it in the figment of our imagination — produces little knowledge of note, theologically, jurisprudentially, or materially. And if we cannot generate ideas, we cannot generate culture.
In between vagrancy and imitation, we languish in irrelevance. Ideas that have long been put to rest in the crypt of history are resurrected and shoehorned into a new context in which they have even less hope or purpose. Alternatively, we engage in cheap imitation and produce twisted simulacra stripped of proper function or tasteful form. The movements for the ‘Islamisation’ of knowledge1 that emerged in the ruins of the apocalypse were an unwitting sleight of hand in trading the production of knowledge for mere imitation. They have been a poor harvest.
Explanations abound for our civilisational bankruptcy: socio-economic conditions, abstract blabbering about the closing of the gates of ijtihad, or absurd notions of racial, intellectual, or theological inferiority. The truth is more offensive to the contemporary mind: elites are the source of cultural production and prestige, whether they generate culture and knowledge or act as patrons. Today, we have no elite class that can act as stewards of our civilisation, patronising intellectuals and artists from below, adopting and proliferating new trends and fashions, and ultimately acting as generational vessels for cultural artefacts.
A proper ‘elite theory of cultural production’ is the topic for another article. This article is concerned with what steps we can personally take to begin solving the problem of civilisational bankruptcy.
How do we generate ideas?
Of all the tools at our disposal, writing is the most important means of producing ideas and culture. The process by which writers begin to generate ideas that go on to influence an entire culture generally follows three phases. The founding phase is where a few individuals or a group come together based on their shared assertion that something is not right in their culture. The incubation phase follows, where this group labours apart from society for some time, incubating a subculture where ideas are shared, a common language (again, distinct from wider society) is formed, and some sense of in-group unity (asabiya) based around this subculture takes root. If the incubation phase bears fruit, a Cambrian explosion of culture follows as the subculture colonises the wider culture. Often the coup is so immediate and widespread that it forms the building blocks of a civilisation’s cultural attitudes and artefacts and escapes the orbit of its founders.
The common assumption is that ideas and culture emerge almost organically from the ground up in any society. History shows that this is not quite the case and that a cultural artefact’s origins are often consciously manufactured through the intense efforts of small groups of people who have an outsized influence on society. Culture is the mimesis of a minority by a majority.
History is replete with examples of this process in motion. The Abbasid Golden Age is seen as the classical age of Islamic civilisation.2 Under the patronage and protection of the Abbasid Caliphs and their armies, an unbroken polity from the borders of Ummayad Spain to the Indus spread its wings. The cities of Islam strung across the breadth of the Old World, becoming centres for commerce, culture, and wisdom: Cordoba, Cairo, Damascus, and Merv, among others. Chief among them was Baghdad, that era’s equivalent of 19th-century Vienna. The city of the Caliphs sat at the heart of intellectual and cultural activity owing to the proximity of scholars to the patronage of the Caliphs and other Abbasid elites. In that peace intellectuals, poets, artists, and scientists came together in an intellectual flourishing to translate and preserve ancient works, debate ideas (often vociferously as rival intellectuals are wont to do), and disseminate knowledge.
This era has a powerful hold on the Muslim imagination, who continue to yearn for and harken to as an example of past glories. But it is not alone. The production of culture and knowledge can occur even in late-stage, embattled civilisations. Well into the late 19th century, vibrant literary scenes, publications, and intellectual efforts abounded from Cairo to the Volga. The Ottoman elites mounted the most robust response to the European challenge, and if you trace the genealogy of 21st-century ideas common across Islamdom, you find that most ‘modern’ discourse was initiated by Ottoman intellectuals and statesmen. In the Russian empire, the Tatar Muslims began the Jadid movement focusing on education and culture as the means by which the Muslims of Russia could strengthen their faith, engage in commerce, develop their knowledge, and seek political autonomy. In the Arab world, the Nahda movement saw a renaissance in Arab literature across Egypt and the Levant.
If you pay attention, you will notice that the great thinkers of these eras were usually connected, either directly through written communications, intellectual salons, and verbal debates, or were able to communicate across the generations as their work was preserved in writing. Region-spanning publications written and published in Alexandria, Istanbul, Kazan, and Paris enabled the dissemination and debate of ideas.
With the dismemberment of the elite classes of Islamdom, we have seen an absolute decline in cultural production. There are no flagship publications for historical, cultural, economic, or political affairs. There are no hallowed institutions of learning that can match the history and prestige of the Oxford’s and Harvard’s of the world. Our best minds flee abroad to serve foreign nations. Islam as a faith mandates the pursuit of knowledge, and Islamdom as a civilisation is a reservoir of knowledge. We are believers in a great faith and heirs to a great civilisational legacy but we have been unfaithful to them both.
It may seem strange to suggest that we do not have good writers or an intellectual culture. The landscape of media and academia today is filled with Muslims endeavouring to produce ideas and culture. Yet is any of it good? It is hard to say that Islamdom has produced much worth in recent times. Many who do wish to produce knowledge go to academia, believing that this cause is best served by working in an Islamic Studies department. Yet these departments largely concern themselves with the same activity they criticise the aged madrasas: critique upon critique, commentary upon commentary, and no clear objective in sight.
Academia does not impart the skills necessary to pursue new ideas. The academic mind generally cannot write on matters outside the narrow confines of their discipline, burrowing ever-deeper into highly technical and irrelevant sub-branches of sub-branches of knowledge. Nor does academia teach the art of writing, the first tool in the production of ideas and culture. If you cannot write, are you really producing ideas?
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
The former paragraph runs swiftly as described. The latter paragraph is what we are mostly forced to consume, a chauvinistic exercise designed to torture the reader and obscure all meaning. For what purpose? As Orwell explained, the academic style masks the insincerity of the writer, hedging their true thoughts through convoluted writing and unwilling to investigate the true nature of things and plainly state them. Academic writing is misdirection by design. We have been made fools attempting to decipher the indecipherable.
Reflect on how few courses, degrees, institutions, or funding, in general, exist to cultivate the source of all true learning: the art of writing. The creation of an Articulate Class precedes the creation of an intellectual renaissance of ideas, novel institutions, or the hope of informing elites of the proper policies and ideas by which to govern our nations.
Thus commences our raid with what shabby equipment we can muster to cultivate a culture of writing. New ideas always come from the fringe, so we must begin there. Where is the frontier for the production of ideas and culture today? The internet is the new frontier, requiring but a laptop and a word processor to generate ideas and culture. Over the past few decades, the much-maligned blogger has become an increasingly influential force in public policy, and culture, and has created an alternative to academia for the production of ideas. Many subcultures have formed and are still forming around influential writers, with some evolving to become communities of knowledge in their own right — the sort of knowledge that is generally verboten in academia precisely because it tends to be effective. Some go on to establish flagship magazines which are extraordinarily influential in shaping both public and elite opinion. In short: writing online is the next frontier for creating knowledge, influencing culture, and directing elite opinion.
My exhortation to you is simple: If you feel like you are called to produce a body of work, that you wish to draw us out together from civilisational bankruptcy, then writing is the most powerful yet underrated tool at your disposal. Do not hesitate to begin writing online and sharing it with like-minded peers. There is no telling where your ideas may spread and who may read and act upon them. Whether your interest is in technology, economics, history, horticulture, fashion, or beyond, writing will help you to clarify your thoughts on the topic, share them with like-minded peers, and influence general opinion on the matter. This work requires a certain degree of delusion and agency, but all great writers are marked by a surfeit of audacity.
Islamdom has few to no great flagship publications, institutions of knowledge, or a rich literary exchange in which writers produce genuinely effective ideas. Writing is not culturally or financially appreciated in the vast majority of Muslim communities, yet it is the first and most necessary skill to master if we are to eventually solve our problem of civilisational bankruptcy. How to cultivate the subcultures that can go on to influence the general culture, or to achieve elite patronage and influence their opinion for the better is a fight for a later time. For now, may a thousand blogs bloom.
‘Islamic finance’, ‘Islamic psychology’, ‘Islamic democracy’, etc.
Often regarded — as I disagree with the narrative of the ‘Golden Age’ and of a subsequent long decline. To be written on later.
Orwell’s essay is the best I have read on the problem of modern writing and how to avoid its errors. Unfortunately, academia enforces every bad principle of writing which is why it is particularly ineffectual for our aims.