Three Essays: Mughals, Wendell Berry, and Nazis

I have decided to put up three essays I have written recently. The first was written for Islam in South Asia–I’m not sure how well I did, but my tack was different than my last attempt, which I was told lacked clarity. This time I stuck pretty close to the texts in a strict compare/contrast/assimilate. I’ll probably get a grade on it tomorrow. The other two are reflection papers, my third and fourth respectively, which I think more interesting than my second. I am not expecting a high grade on the third; the teacher for the Totalitarianism class has been progressively revealing what he wants for these papers, and I may have missed the boat in my focus; however, I have high hopes for my fourth, which I submit tonight.


Equipoise and Public Image in Emperors Aurangzeb and Akbar

“To the Mughals,” writes Muzaffar Alam, “sharī‘a came to be synonymous with the nāmūs-i Ilāhī (divine law), the most important task of which was to ensure a balance of conflicting interests, of harmony between groups and communities, of non-interference in their personal beliefs” (78). In this statement Alam explains the akhlāq posture on sharī‘a adopted by the Mughal emperors, which insists on the continuity, even unity, of sharī‘a with secular justice. The Mughal emperors perpetuated an image of themselves that ran parallel to this view of law, one which idealized justice and equipoise. In this essay I will compare the description of Aurangzeb in Katherine Brown’s “Did Aurangzeb Ban Music?” to a letter by Akbar to offer a partial picture of how the Mughal emperors would try to present themselves in harmony with their philosophy of sharī‘a.

Jalal and Bose in Modern South Asia emphasize that, contrary to popular perception, the Mughal Empire was hardly the epitome of centralized despotism (35). Unlike the Safavids and Ottomans, the Mughals ruled a largely non-Moslem population, a fact that would shape the manifestations of their sovereignty (38). This naturally shaped the pragmatic application of imperial will and law. Here I am going to look first and achronologically at the specific story of Aurangzeb before moving to the generalities that are pronounced in the readings of Akbar.

Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) is described by Brown as a man of deep personal conviction and moderate politics. In calling into question the unsympathetic narratives of Khafi Khan and Manucci, which have given rise to the story that Aurangzeb banned music in his empire, she proposes an alternative explanation, that the emperor for a time abstained personally from “an activity that he enjoyed” (112) out of piety. Rather than pursue an image of authoritarian despotism, Brown places Aurangzeb in a generous light that seriously doubts that his devotion to Islam had a major impact on the life and freedom of his subjects. His reign was defined by secular fairness rather than legalism.

This alternative suggests the way that Aurangzeb would have presented himself to his subjects. He combined “Mughal ideals of manliness” (111) with orthodox Muslim conviction to produce an ideal of “princely self-discipline” (111). He wanted to maintain his integrity before his empire without alienating his population. The public renunciation of music for his person, if it occurred, would be a declaration of consistency and good faith in the wake of his passion for Hira Bai, even as he privately encouraged or was neutral to the art (112).

Aurangzeb’s public persona seems one as much of moderation and equipoise as of piety. Religious conviction was only one part of it; there were also expressions of reasonableness and integrity. He was a man of balance, who followed through on his beliefs but was gracious to non-Moslems. At least, this seems to have been the ideal. His re-imposition of the jizya for economic purposes cannot have helped his relationship with his non-Islamic population (Jalal and Bose 41). His reign was marked by many rebellions, although Jalal and Bose assert that the agrarian revolts usually came about from a desire to hold onto prosperity rather than prevalent oppression and poverty (43). Asher and Talbot, meanwhile, imply that these were a result of Aurangzeb’s wartime neglect of his northern population and the alienation of his nobles (232). Perhaps his persona failed to draw respect in the latter half of his reign, due either to deviations or inherent flaws. Nevertheless, it seems evident that the Mughals expected an emperor who was just outside of religious loyalty, and it was this image which Aurangzeb tried to present them.

Akbar (r. 1556-1605) seemingly represents a more successful manifestation of a persona with similar political values and greater pragmatic religious flexibility. Rather than seeking to appeal to the religious orthodox, he was more interested in a transcendent impartiality, expressed perhaps in his private faith, Dīn-i Ilāhī (Jalal and Bose 40). He aimed for this externalized ideal of justice and equipoise even more overtly than Aurangzeb.

His circular letter to the ‘Ummāl and Mutaṣaddīs fills out this picture with its comprehensive insights. Unlike Aurangzeb, Akbar’s self-presentation is not overtly religious or consciously pious. One of his first stipulations for his officers is that they should “always seek Divine pleasure without having any consideration for their personal gains of the losses of others” (Haidar 79), but his language in that paragraph is not specifically Islamic. He refers to the Almighty but does not elaborate theologically; he encourages moderation and pronounces that the “best service to God in this world is the growth of relations and the accomplishment of works of people’s welfare which they should perform without regard to (personal) friendship, enmity or relationship” (79-80). This uniquely frames Akbar’s perspective on the unity of religious and political duty: the ruler’s service to God is expressed through just fulfillment of his duties as much as or more than orthodoxy.

The rest of his letter is decked with further counsel of such justice and moderation. He advises against hasty judgments and unadvised action (81), interference in religious matters (82), overindulgence (82-83), permitting of economic corruption (84), and lack of celebration of major holidays (85). The ideal officer, and presumably the ideal emperor, is a man of equipoise, able first and foremost to deal justly and temperately with those in his charge. If a legalistic institution was practically oppressive or useless, Akbar did away with it, as he did with the jizya and the lunar calendar (Jalal and Bose 40).

Both of these reforms Aurangzeb would reverse, although, as mentioned above, probably as much for economic profit and the interests of his empire as for personal devotion. There is still an inescapable sense of the eminence or preeminence of justice. Aurangzeb was a politician whose image did not merely incorporate pious orthodoxy but also permitted the building of Hindu temples and economic support for such (Brown 115). If his private life was complex in its motivations and beliefs, his public image, according to Brown, had to be “clear-cut” (109). With integrity, Aurangzeb could hold up both devotion to Islam and administrative fairness as fulfilling his political and religious duties.

This appears to be the essence of the akhlāq philosophy of law accepted by both Aurangzeb and Akbar. The first reference point is the human being (Alam 54), with religious tradition being used to approach a universal concept of independent and worthy existence. Not just in law, but in the image of a ruler, statesmanship and equipoise well describe the ideal for both Aurangzeb and Akbar. The akhlāq interpretation of sharī‘a provides them an image of justice to emulate, one concerned as much with secular justice as with orthodox piety. The Mughal emperor could be Majesty and Light of the Faith (Alam 78) and also pass down secular justice to the infidel; he could be an espouser of virtue and the epitome of balance without contradiction.

Works Cited

Alam, Mufazzar. The Languages of Political Islam in India c. 1200-1800. 2004. Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2010. Print.

Asher, Catherine and Cynthia Talbot. Islam in South Asia in Practice. 2006. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Brown, Katherine Butler. “Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of his Reign.” Modern Asian Studies 41.1 (2007): 77-120. Print.

Haidar, Mansura, ed. “A Circular Enumerating the Duties of Officers.” Letters of the Emperor Akbar in English Translation. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal and Indian Council of Historical Research, 1998. 78-88. Print.

Jalal, Ayesha and Sugata Bose. “The Mughal Empire: State, Economy, and Society.” Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. New York: Routledge, 1998. 35-47. Print.

* * *

Seeing Like a State

James C. Scott in his book Seeing Like a State confronts the question of why the grand utopian plans of modern states tend to fail miserably, the social tinkering doing great harm to the involved populace. His answer is to propose an explanation for both cause and effect: the most pronounced instances of failed experimentation involve a simplistic imposition of administrative order, a high-modernist ideology (confidence in the absolute sufficiency of progress), a deadly willingness on the part of the state to wield power for its ends, and a “prostrate civil society” (5) that cannot oppose those in power.

To briefly review the contents of his book, he begins with a lengthy discussion on the simplification inherent in the nature of statecraft and organization, a simplification that allows for basic comprehension of facts and systemic manipulation but glides over information that can be crucial in a given decision. His second section explores high modernism and its often disastrous trust in the supremacy of rationalism for dealing with human problems, as well as the imperialistic chords issuing from those who have sought to impose their solutions. His examples in the following section cover the effects of Soviet collectivization, Tanzanian villagization, and industrial agronomics. Scott concludes with an appreciative discussion on the practical knowledge mētis as contrasted with techne.

Perhaps in part because my mind had been recently tilled by Wendell Berry, who was obviously a major influence on the book, I found myself entirely receptive and in sympathy with Scott’s argument philosophically and (insofar as I have knowledge) historically. Although the whole book was informative and enjoyable, I would like to discuss the last part of his argument, which deals specifically with the practical knowledge mētis, particularly why high modernism fails to take it into account. To Scott, mētis is the stuff of life—a combination of experience, intuition, and inherited knowledge. It is innovation in response to specific circumstances, what often develops into a local, practical way of doing things.

Why is long-accepted mētis undervalued by Western “high society” for the order and promise of rules of thumb (techne)? Part of it, as Scott points out, is from a confidence in progress. There is a desire for universal intelligibility inherent in a modernist worldview, and egalitarian, ordered ideals often ignore the more complex and unpredictable nature of reality. When legibility is rigorously imposed upon an externally confusing mass of traditions and local systems, mētis is undermined in favor of broad solutions that are simply never versatile enough to be applied in all situations.

The ardent aesthetic of the high modernists is another interesting facet, given that mētis looks to be more artful of the two forms of knowledge. In his segments on architecture, Scott remarks on the lack of interest in intuitive human preferences under the assumption that a transcendent logic (techne) can and should define all situations. Society grows like the roots of a tree—seemingly without rational intent, actually in response to environmental factors. Mētis therefore is personal, irregular like humanity and the world. High modernism’s fixation on platonic forms and regular patterns clashes with the rugged knowledge of the peasant, and even when its conclusions are right they are rarely all right. The ruinous effects of such generalization is evident in Scott’s many examples.

It can rightfully be argued that local knowledge sometimes opposes positive external forces. But this ignorance is symptomatic of dependence on mētis to the exclusion of broader forms of knowledge, not mētis itself. The humble mētis can be revised for its own betterment; the humble techne can provide guidance without destroying mētis. Any worldview which claims comprehensive knowledge of the workings of the world is vulnerable to arrogance—the kind of blissful arrogance that rises in utopian fantasies and usually strikes the ground with a horrible shock. In Wendell Berry’s poem-essay “Damage,” he combines aphorisms and the narrative of a failed pond-building project to insist on the vital importance of familiarity with a place—he uses the term culture, which in his writing roughly correlates to mētis. “No expert knows everything about every place,” he comments, “not even everything about any place.”[1] His conclusion: “[A] man with a machine and inadequate culture… is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.”[2]

[1] Wendell Berry, “Damage,” in What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 5.

[2] Ibid., 8.

* * *

The Nazi Seizure of Power

“A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in 1925. “As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.”[1] This statement suggests passivity on the part of those who grant power to a despot, but it may also be applied broadly to a totalitarian state that comes into being when a people, fed up with the waste and political wrangling that a democracy produces, empowers a radical leadership to effect change in methods distinct from accepted politics. William Sheridan Allen’s book The Nazi Seizure of Power examines the rise of the Nazis within the microcosm of a German town, Northeim, and the focus and detail of the survey brings to light some of the more particular and personal reasons for the events that occurred, including the mindset of some of those citizens who committed to a cause that was in retrospect so fearful.

Allen raises the point repeatedly that the signs of what Nazism would become were there in the violence, militarism, corruption, and political tactics of the party, and yet people still voted the NSDAP into power. The early Nazis, like Spannaus, may have been intellectuals and good citizens, idealists who bought the impossible Nazi program. But aspects of its agenda were accepted by the majority without consciously buying the total underlying philosophy; its inherent anti-Semitism was considered largely incidental to the later Nazis of Northeim; the violent struggles between socialist and Nazi activists were not thought significant to the issue; the rude and dictatorial Girmann was dismissed as “fringe”[2] for the respectable face of Spannaus.

Political involvement on the part of the average citizen seems chiefly reactionary. The middle class would not have accepted Nazism if it perceived no threat to its livelihood. Generally speaking, the most politically active are the unsatisfied, not the satisfied, and the frustrations of political inefficiency and social ill-being lead to radicalism. The most powerful draw to Nazism was the depression. Allen repeatedly emphasizes the weariness of the middle class with the SPD, the fear that its long-ineffective policies would reduce them to poverty and hunger.[3] In the face of this, local activism reached a peak, using the Nazi movement as a hammer to effect change. Allen’s analysis of the reasons for this particular party’s sudden popularity is illuminating. He suggests major reasons including its ardent anti-Marxism, which protected middle-class interests; its nationalism, which agreed with the values of smarting post-Great War Germany; and its attractive parade order and self-assurance, all of which made Nazism respectable. When popular and seemingly inevitable in its rise, people rushed to it, trusting in its principles or simply pursuing personal profit or stability. To some degree, it did as promised—it brought down unemployment and turned around the economy—but its manipulations came with a price, which was most basically the investment of power in a rule of terror.

The people of Northeim on the whole lacked a clear idea of the practical ends of the Nazi program,[4] and they came to embrace the NSDAP in a mix of desperation and hope. It was an activism that so badly wanted change that it blinded itself to the nature and potential of the beast it was raising. Revolutionary Nazism seemed pure of both familiar, lesser-evil politics and the undesirable change sought by the communists. But to accomplish its aims it would eliminate other political parties and opposition to its reforms—this was apparent to the astute observer, and the Socialists saw it right away. The people accepted a “total” party because it promised swift change outside of the squabbling of political parties.

This idea is comparable, perhaps, to the religious activism we see in Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints. Puritan ideology wanted change; it grew through cliques of the likeminded into an underground political movement—never, perhaps from its alienating disciplinary severity, to become as massive or popular as Nazism. Puritans were given license to criticize the existing order and suggest a positive alternative, something which set them apart and made them attractive to those dissatisfied with the corruption of state and laxity of state church. Nazis were born into a different world, but like the Puritans wished to stand outside the existing system, offering a strong, distinct alternative to the politics of the day. Their language was chiefly propagandist rather than rational, but it succeeded in capturing the minds of the reluctant population with its solution. Radicalism itself, it seems to me, made Nazism attractive apart from the concrete offerings of the party.

The concept of total reaction to the inevitable frustrations of democracy is simple enough; the Roman dictators serve as an institutionalized system based on this idea; however, when democracy is altogether suspended in the service of an ideological regime, prostrating the population to its will, problems are created that are not easily solved. The naïve “idealists” could not control the dominant corrupt element, for the “rogues” were now the ideal and the norm.[5] When the Nazis became unpopular, some called for an Army dictatorship to replace it[6]—for what effective response to Nazi power could there be but to replace it or displace it with something more potent? The unpleasant aspects of the change produced by the successful regime were only reversed through the potency of war and further hardship.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 51.

[2] Allen, 34.

[3] Ibid., 140.

[4] Ibid., 240.

[5] Ibid., 246.

[6] Ibid., 278.


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