The Ideology of
Mohammed A. BamyehWe are speaking of a terrain in which life repeats itself both endlessly and precariously. Here, the eyes of the inhabitant open daily to a topography of solemn solitude, far more imposing to the soul than the minuscule islets of social life encountered thereupon. The desert is a sphere of absolute speechlessness. What is strange in the desert is speaking, thinking in words, dialogizing, communicating. In this vast expanse, ridiculing all notions of paramount subjectivity, profuse wilderness covers all visible destinations between the here and all horizons; the human actor is but an insignificant footnote to the space; to think of presence in dogmatic terms of space --- where space as a habitat is at best a seasonal interruption --- is to practically annul oneself. Only a perennially visible enigma, the horizon, sets the boundaries of knowable nature. Like the sea, the horizon of the desert stands out in contrast to the landscape as the unreachable terminus of nature, its inconclusive conclusion.
The Arabian Peninsula --- the cradle of Islam --- is dominated by the two vast deserts that occupy the bulk of the land. The great Nufud wilderness claims much of the north, while the Empty Quarter, one of the most arid and impassable deserts on earth, stretches over half a million square kilometers in the south. Such immense horizons confound the ideas of beginning and end, depositing the concept of eternity in the heart of the concrete present. This ideology of the horizons, as will become apparent in subsequent chapters, is oblivious to human structures of presence as a purposeful progression of moments where one constructs for oneself a path in time, periodizes existence, valorizes destination. In other words, such an ideology sees in the spectacle of the horizon not so much an inviting mirage as the most fundamental picture of the emptiness of grandiose human quests.
There are notable exceptions, of course, to this story. The recurrent Semitic migrations outside of the peninsula during the four millennia preceding Islam were clearly intended to free population groups from such a magnitude of resourcelessness. But in this volume we are concerned with those who stayed and developed sedentary societies and sedentary ways of looking that challenged the desert's inhospitability to any other life than one of permanent wandering. The story of Islam, along with many contemporaneous theological and cosmological experiments, rotates around such tensions in the ways of seeing and assessing the outside --- and by extension the inside --- of human society.
But before such a permanent encampment, the concreteness of existential emptiness could be derived purely by looking. No exceptional abillty to see into the nature of things was required. The eternity of the same readily revealed itself to all those who had the patience to pause long enough to appreciate the horizons, the boundaries of the magnificent desert, and long enough to allow the horizon to fully transform itself into an idea, to become a part of seeing in the most fundamental way, in other words, to become an "ideology." The ideology of horizons is a peculiar production of this form of wilderness. And it is an ideology that sustains wandering. Here, the horizon, consisting of visible sameness, visible emptiness, visible lack of any promise whatever, nullifies the quest after it. But on the other hand, such a horizon speaks of the conclusion of the desert and promises an unknown beyond, a different nature that cannot be seen without wandering toward the horizon. And in this other capacity, the horizon instigates the quest for that beyond.
This perplexing appeal of the horizon situates it exactly at the borderline between two modes of wandering. One mode is to wander as a natural fate, preordained by the indifference of the desolate landscape to ordinary human needs. The other mode is to invest in the wandering a teleological scheme of crossing over into a land of lush riverbanks, where the horizon would gradually disappear as an invitation, goal, or boundary of permanent wandering. In both cases, the desert itself only promises traces, ruins, and betrayals of past loves and lives; nothing more. One wanders, and one forgets through wandering --- in effect eliminating from view --- the desert's failure to sustain other than its own overpowering expanse, eternal and normative as it seems. Here, if there is a destination, one reaches it by simply moving. No elaborate schemes are required. No scheming subject is required. In fact, no subject at all is required. Until poetic, cosmological, and thematic discourses about that nature began to be produced, valued, and preserved, there were no forms imposed on it. For the wanderer, the desert formed itself and dissipated along the way, with no everlasting images. Such a nature formed itself in the mode of interruptions, as though to encourage existence a little longer, precisely when the wanderer was about to perish. This is how the nomadic ode itself proceeded until exhaustion (and not conclusion) consumed its energy. But until the regular production and preservation of discourse and sedentarism, such interruptions were no more than erasable bursts of life. There was wandering, but there were no roads, no pathways, no passages into an alternative ideology or life, no meaning for time or direction. Unless one ceased to be a nomad, nothing altered that eternal presence.
Throughout the peninsula, movement was the norm and halting the exception. Agriculture, the primary precondition for settlement, was possible as a large-scale activity only in Yemen and the Green Mountain in 'Uman. Some isolated agricultural colonies also developed in some elevated regions of Hijaz and Najd, the most important of which was in and around Ta'if, which supplied Mecca with much of its food. Mecca itself, the birthplace of Islam, was far from being an agricultural community. In fact, it grew like a wild thorn amid an and environment of solid rock. It survived only because of the growing world trade that passed through it... But in spite of its world connection, Mecca, as a particular form of settlement, was left to determine its own ideology with reference to its own preconditions and surroundings, where nomadism and wandering predominated for enormous distances in all directions. With the exception of Yemen, the great powers of the time --- the Romans, the Sassanids, the Abyssinians --- displayed little interest in any part of the Arabian Peninsula.
Thus, the particular story of permanent halting in Mecca contains simultaneous elements of knowledge of and independence from all the great powers of the epoch (including peninsular powers such as Yemen). Mecca's location deep in the desert insulated the city from the fate of the other nascent trading centers that were annexed to such powers. Palmyra and Petra were annexed by Rome, Aden was dominated by the Abyssinians and Sassanids. But it was also the relations with such powers that stabilized a form of halting, which would otherwise have been devoured by a nature that does not usually allow it. The Qur'an itself registers a profound awareness of Mecca's precarious exceptionalism, nestled as it is in a resourceless terrain that under normal circumstances would not have allowed it to survive beyond a season or two. Such an exception, in turn, could be available only to foundational projects associated with prophetic effort --- Abraham's in this case: "Abraham said: Lord, I have settled some of my offspring in a barren valley near Your Sacred House....Put in the hearts of men kindness towards them, and provide them with the earth's fruits, so they may give thanks."
In this case, an act of halting --- indeed, an expression of an intention to halt forever --- was seen to depend on God's leave and bounty. This is not to say, however, that a wandering nomad had no need for deities or that the sedentary God's credentials consisted in his assistance in a mere earthly and immediate task. The story is far more complex than that. As will become apparent in subsequent chapters, the decision and capacity to halt involve major metaphysical reorientations. Much of the dilemmas of Abraham's descendants, indeed, consisted of the question of how to overcome the ideology of the horizons, with all of its underpinnings. Such underpinnings had involved an attenuation of the idea of displacement, a cyclical vision of nature, a materialist rather than spiritualist contextualization of the idea of fate, an understanding of human and logical finitude in terms of processional exhaustion rather than of summary verdict or unifying conclusion, a suspicion of subjective construction and planning, a tendency to mock abstract authority, and an almost reflexive antipathy to grand political schemes in general. In an important sense, the idea of a monotheistic God exemplified a sustained attack on the ideology of the horizons and an effort to place the experiences of halting and wandering under a different order of regulation than those the nomad was willing to tolerate. This book will examine the rich dialectic interaction between that ideology of the horizons and the emergent faith and the resulting metamorphoses in all social and discursive spheres affected by both.--- Introduction to
The Social Origins of Islam
(University of Minnesota Press)