From Bethlehem to Baku: Bandali Jawzi and the Origins of Postmodernism

In Interpreting Islam: Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History, Tamara Sonn brings new attention to a figure who has been mostly forgotten in Western historiography, at least until recently. The details of Bandali Jawzi’s life remain murky, but its trajectory offers a remarkable vantage point on the political and cultural convulsions that roiled the early twentieth century. With little more evidence than an unpublished dissertation from an Azerbaijani university and a footnote in a 1973 text, Sonn had to piece together the writer’s origins. One scholar had heard that Jawzi was a born a Tatar in the Russian city of Kazan. Another source indicated that Jawzi was an Arab Christian from Palestine; indeed, it turned out that he was born in Bethlehem in 1872.

Over the course of a career that took him a monastery in Tripoli to the University of Baku, Bandali Jawzi led the way in rethinking the intellectual history of Islam in the early twentieth century. Many Arabic reformers hoped that Western-style liberalism would help free them from imperial domination and economic stagnation, yet betrayal of their aspirations for independence by France and the United Kingdom after World War I dimmed the possibility of reform along the lines of liberal democracy. With the Russian Revolution unfolding in the late teens and twenties, Marxism began to look like an attractive alternative for political change in the Arab world. Although the militant atheism of most Communist parties gave many Muslims pause, Muhammad and Marx could cohabitate if political circumstances favored an alliance; as Sonn points out, Muslims in Azerbaijan made common cause with the Bolsheviks in order to throw off the cruel oppression of the Czarist empire, but the partnership quickly fell apart when the victorious Communists determined that class unity (i.e. Russian hegemony) was far more important than Azerbaijanis’ aspiration for self-determination.

Jawzi, who moved to Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s, wrote his most famous work in the midst of this churning tumult. The History of Intellectual Movements in Islam (1928) reevaluated the long history of theological schisms within Islam from the perspective of ideology and political economy. He also unleashes a withering reading of European scholarship on Islam, pointing out the vain disregard for evidence or specificity when Orientalists made sweeping claims about the unchanging nature of society and culture in “the East.” This analysis came fifty years before Edward Said indicted Western scholars for creating a warped image of the Islamic world in the classic text Orientalism, and both authors made their case in strikingly similar terms. A sardonic Jawzi blasts revered European historians like Ernest Renan, who stated unequivocally that “It is nothing but the terrible simplicity of the Semitic spirit which oppresses the brain of man and obstructs the way of all free thought and scientific investigation, exchanging for all that the boring repetition of the shahada [the Muslim declaration of faith in God and Prophet Muhammad].” The Orientalists make an error of synecdoche, Jawzi suggests, confusing the part with the whole. For example, one concludes that all Arabs must believe in astrology or reject the scientific method if some can be found to do so. He also condemns Western scholars for identifying Eastern cultures with their most ancient form, and disregarding any new evolution of the tradition as either irrelevant or a degradation of its original state – a mistake that was common in Western scholarship prior to the self-critical reorientation of anthropology in the late twentieth century. “According to this view, one need only know a short period in the life of an ancient eastern nation,” Jawzi writes. “One can extrapolate from that to discover its overall conditions, regardless of how long it has existed or how many internal changes it has undergone.”

In fact, as Sonn makes clear, this critique only makes up a small part of Jawzi’s work. Most of History of Intellectual Movements focuses on the failings of past Islamic scholars, not Orientalists. In this spirit, Jawzi looks at new religious movements in Islamic history as vehicles of protest and reform, despite the fact that authorities in the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties were quick to brand unorthodox groups as liars and thieves. Instead, he asks if movements like that of Babak Khorram-Din (795- 838 CE), the Isma‘ilis, or the utopian Qaramatis (tenth century CE) served as vehicles for economic discontent and a search for social justice. The Babakis, for instance, have often been characterized as a movement to assert greater Persian cultural identity under the domination of the Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad. Jawzi sees the Babaki movement as a quest of peasants in what is present-day Iran for social justice and economic improvement, as the farms they worked were owned by large landowners. Islamic rule had not brought a better life than an earlier regime, and the luxurious decadence and inequality of the caliphate seemed to contradict Muhammad’s original message of social justice.

In hindsight, it seems possible that Bandali Jawzi was projecting a quasi-Marxist, economic determinist interpretation onto events that do not quite warrant it. As the saying goes, when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. This is true of nearly all schools of thought. A historian of sexuality is likely to find a sexual dimension to any historical event or social struggle; a tut-tutting Washington pundit is likely to view everything in terms of partisanship and a personality-driven horse race. Certainly, scholars influenced by Marxism will want to find the basis for a religious insurgency in material conditions of the economy: production, property ownership, taxes, and so forth. Movements like the Isma‘ilis, who trace their lineage back to the time of Muhammad and remain a potent social force today, emerged as a result of genuine theological differences and raw political power struggles as Islam wrestled with the problems presented by geographical expansion in the years after Muhammad’s death. That economics played a role in such struggles can hardly be discounted, but the main terrain of conflict was ideology.

Moreover, this tumultuous period gave rise to theological conflicts in part because the interpretive flexibility and openness of Islam in its early days gradually gave way to a hardening orthodoxy over the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Sonn lucidly explains the importance of ijtihad, the practice of using independent reason to interpret Islamic principles and apply them to new circumstances. News of this practice may surprise many westerners, especially Americans, who have the impression that Islamic law has been fixed and immutable for all Muslims for all time. In the first centuries of Islam, Muslims standardized the scriptures and attempted to figure out how to apply the model of the Prophet’s ideas, sayings and actions to changing social conditions. As the implications of Islamic law were worked out by jurists and philosophers, though, some began to believe that all the major questions had been answered satisfactorily, and further interpretation or speculation was unnecessary. Much of this hardening orthodoxy undoubtedly owes to the tendency of institutions to become more conservative and risk-averse over time, as well as the natural inclination of people to think the horizon of their own lives and times marks the limits of the world. (Remember when Americans patted themselves on the back about the “end of history” and the permanent triumph of capitalism back in the 1990s?)

In any case, it is not surprise that groups with differing interpretations would be suppressed, as they have been in so many religious traditions, as one viewpoint takes power and attempts to demonize and marginalize its competitors. Such competitors, of course, may also espouse equally unusual economic ideals and have their own material interests. The Qaramatis, for instance, set up their own government in eastern Arabia at the end of the ninth century CE, where land was distributed more or less equally and a council of six governed by consensus. While Jawzi cites this as an ancient model of socialism, Sonn is quick to note that the Qaramatis’ egalitarianism did not extend to the many Black slaves they used to work the land. Slavery was, of course, common in the ancient world at the time, and Jawzi judges the group leniently for at least attempting to implement a kind of equality and social justice among their own people. (Slaveowning democracies from ancient Athens to the antebellum United States might make for fair comparisons.)

Jawzi wrote in the context of his time and place, and much of his work drew on Soviet scholars who, despite the Marxist coloration of their work, were often far less prejudiced and blindered than Orientalists in the United States and Europe. Indeed, Jawzi’s career put him in a unique position to survey both the intellectual history of Islam and the contemporary scene. Despite being a Christian, his work expressed clear admiration for what he saw as the Islamic principles of social justice and equality. He studied at a Russian university and ultimately taught in Communist-controlled Azerbaijan, on the ethnic, religious and political fringe of the new Soviet empire. His is an unusual and oft-neglected perspective on the world of the early twentieth century, marked by rising and falling empires and shifting ideologies. The climate of anti-imperialism and insurgent socialism, from the Arab world to the Communist bloc, appears to define his intellectual stance.

In fact, Jawzi’s analysis looks not so much like proto-deconstruction or pre-neohistoricism as a thoughtful application of Marx’s idea of base and superstructure, i.e. that the ideology and culture of a society reflects the material interests of those with economic power, as well as, more broadly, the basic arrangement of the economy itself. One could say Protestant Christianity and liberal democracy are part of the “superstructure” that sits on top of American capitalism, justifying the prevailing economic system. A feudal or slave society will have cultural traditions that legitimize the arrangements for property ownership and production in its unique form. Jawzi appears to have broken ground by bringing this kind of analysis to bear on the history of Islamic thought and political culture. Perhaps the Isma‘ilis were disparaged as hash-smoking bandits not because that’s what they were, but because such a characterization serves the interests of those in power and was likely to accepted and passed down as conventional wisdom. Looking at religious offshoots as protest movements against corrupt or oppressive caliphs makes sense in Marxist terms, as it lends a potentially economic basis for the emergence of religious culture and a political one for the demonization of dissenters and their countercultures.

It could be that the argument is older than Said or even Marx; the idea that “history is written by the victors” is not new.  Sonn weaves references to Foucault, Derrida and others throughout the text of Interpreting Islam, attempting to prove that Jawzi anticipated their work and that subsequent Islamic thinkers have picked up the thread of neohistoricism and deconstruction. With the exception of Said, most of the links feel secondary and tenuous. Reading texts for their political and cultural bias was no more invented by Bandali Jawzi than it was by Jacques Derrida. But the recovery of Jawzi’s work is important; that a Palestinian Christian emerged to defend the intellectual legacy of Islam at a time when Western anthropologists still breezily dismissed the simple-mindedness of the East is a story that deserves attention.

Alex Sayf Cummings