What Is the Islamic State, in Historical Perspective?

The eminent twentieth-century British historian Arnold Toynbee observed in his 1948 Civilization on Trial (pp. 164-187 of the 1971 paperback edition) that, once the Westernizers [whom he labels “Herodians”, after the loyal-to-Rome king of Judea in Jesus’ time] and the Zealots — those who adopted, and those who resisted, the works of Western Civilization — of the Islamic world had shown the failure, since adaptation to novelty is necessary for survival, both of blanket adoption and blanket rejection of modernity, the way would be open for the creative contribution to human civilization of the lower classes.

We can imagine arch-“Herodians” like the late President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and arch-“Zealots” like the Grand Sanusi concurring with enlightened Western colonial administrators like the late Lord Cromer or General Lyautey to exclaim with one accord: “Can any creative contribution to the civilization of the future be expected from the Egyptian fallah or the Constantinopolitan hammal?” Just so, in the early years of the Christian era, when Syria was feeling the pressure of Greece, Herod Antipas and Gamaliel and those zealous Theudases and Judases who, in Gamaliel’s memory, had perished by the sword, would almost certainly have concurred with a Greek poet in partibus Orientalium [in some part of the East] like Meleager of Gadara, or a Roman provincial governor like Gallio, in asking, in the same satirical tone, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

(I can give links to obscure names, but the final reference demands I explain that the Greek-writing author of the Christian Gospel According to John has one Galilean follower of Jesus bring the good news of the Messiah to another Galilean, who, when told where the new Leader comes from, asks that question.)

It is possible, what Toynbee suggests; and what happened once — salvation arising out of a poor, forgotten corner of an empire — could happen again. But no use of the word “good thing” could be applied to the Islamic State.

No, we are not witnessing the beginning of a new world-conquering religion, with the Islamic State. Rather, the real origin lies in a mixing-up, a jumbling, in no particular logical connection, of the most passionate adherence to the traditional past with the most sophisticated adoption of Western technical methods, specifically including rapid adaptation and creative innovation. The result is a great deal of bloodshed; the coherence of your philosophy matters.

The Islamic State, for as long as it lasts, is a renewal of the effort which led to the Taiping Rebellion of nineteenth-century China. Jesus’ younger brother, you may recall, was going to harmonize the whole world, Chinese and European, right now, starting today. And weapons of war were one of the things the Taipings were perfectly keen to employ. The revolt, however volcanic in duration and casualties, had to fail, since the Chinese Empire and the European world powers both opposed it; plus Utopia today does not make much sense. The successful adaptation to modernity by the traditional Chinese Empire took place, but a century later, at the hands and minds of more broadly-educated revolutionaries and reformers  (Sun, Yat-sen and Chou En-lai for two examples).

Isis is a growing pain of the conflict among empires in the Levant.  The War in the Mideast, as the same Religious Reformer out of Nazareth affirmed about the poor, will always be with us.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Astronomy, Don Gavitte, Education, Empire, Iran, Israel, John Schweibert, Mathematics, Permaculture, Saudi Arabia, Spiritual life. Bookmark the permalink.

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