The Challenge of Islam
The Prophetic Tradition
After being blown away by Brown’s Life Against Death and Love’s Body, I was disappointed back in the ’90s when I tracked down his more recent volume, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. It covered a lot of the same ground as this short book, which comprises transcripts of Brown’s lectures in the early ’80s about his study of Islam. Maybe this book grabbed me more because, having recently discovered Corbin and Tom Cheetham, I’ve more of a grounding in Islamic ideas. Maybe I should revisit Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis… In any case, these lectures are fascinating.
Brown’s speaking here in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and in the early Reagan years. He acknowledges (without necessarily conceding to) Marcuse’s accusations that his work in the ’60s had led to a muddying of political acuteness with mystical ideas. But here he’s very conscious of the political impacts of the theology he’s dealing with, and balances his reliance on and respect for Henry Corbin with recommendations to read some more hard-headed histories of Shi’ite radicalism.
Prefiguring the analysis of people like Adam Curtis and John Gray, who trace fundamentalist Islam to Western traditions of anarchism, or describe the common ground at the roots of modern Islamic fundamentalism and neo-conservatism, Brown sees Islam not in exotic “oriental” opposition to our civilization, but as an important stream within the Western tradition—a wager that Christianity had taken things in the wrong direction. The theology here largely deals with the vast historical implications of the doctrine of literal incarnation of God in the body of Christ, and the roots of Islam in the Jewish Gnostic challenge to this. As in his ’60s works, William Blake is a major prophetic touchstone. At one point he describes his entire series of lectures on Islam as just an introduction to Blake. Another recent Western reference point is Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake—he claims Joyce is the only writer to have risen to the challenge given in the Quran to match its finely kaleidoscopic composition.
The waves of meditation and analysis that he rides throughout land him on shores dominated by the two figures in Islam who have provided most inspiration for Western counter-culture: the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan-i Sabbah, and the Verdant One, Khidr. His discussion of them in relation to Islamic terrorism and gnostic spirituality is brief but stirs plenty of numinous neural backwaters.
Despite being edited by devoted students of this scrupulous scholar, there’s some off-putting typos and layout errors. But in all, this is a great read for anyone interested in the monumental intersections of history and radical spirituality.
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