“Post-Modernism and The Theory of Episteme” by Ahmad Javaid — An Urdu to English Translation by Faizan Rashid
October 23, 2022
Faizan Rashid presents an English translation of Ahmad Javaid’s “Ma-baad Jadidiyat: Kya Anarchy Hai”—“Post-Modernism and The Theory of Episteme”—originally published in Urdu by Rekhta.org.

Editor’s Introduction

Faizan Rashid presents an English translation of Ahmad Javaid’s “Ma-baad Jadidiyat: Kya Anarchy Hai”—“Post-Modernism and The Theory of Episteme”—originally published in Urdu by Rekhta.org. A translation such as Faizan’s reveals, among other things, the manner in which key philosophical texts and ideas from the western tradition are critically received and evaluated by the Urdu-speaking world and South Asia at large. As such, the target language of this translation facilitates a deeper insight into such reception and evaluation for a readership more accustomed to reading in English. Here, Faizan Rashid’s translated text operates as feedback of sorts where philosophical texts originally produced in European and Western languages have been dialogically interpreted and studied by a religious figure, writer, orator and poet of Ahmad Javaid’s stature.

The Pakistani intellectual and religious figure’s engagement with such Western philosophical texts—and the thinkers that promulgated them—again serves to debacle set stereotypes and assumptions grounded in Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis riddled with essentialist binaries that unfortunately still abound in global media when it comes to reflecting on “the question of the Muslims.” Stellar examples include frequent (and sometimes repurposed and redundant) opinion columns, articles, a campus debate, a televised one where Batman has to come to the rescue all the way from Boston. In many such writings and debates, one finds both critics and apologists entertaining redundant questions about whether “Islamic thought and practice are compatible with the West”, whether “Islam is incompatible with modernity” or flat out whether “Islam is a radical and extremist religion.”

Far-removed from any binaries of ‘criticism vs. apologia’ that abound in popular discourses (problematized briefly in this editor’s introduction), Faizan Rashid’s translation from Urdu into English of Ahmad Javaid’s reflections on key Western philosophical ideas and relevant philosophers can be traced back to centuries of scholarly engagement by Muslim intellectuals and religious figures with a variety of ideas and texts from multiple civilizations. Faizan’s translation reminds us of a time and a space even before Bediuzzaman Said Nursi—that has been made to exist outside of dominant media discourses—where civilizational interaction and knowledge exchange was core to the type of dialogue that consistently has remained to broaden multiple understandings and connections.

It is perhaps within this time and space that both critics and apologists should look when articulating far too complex questions in oversimplified or within limited terms and lexicons of media, modernity and contemporaneity, when reflecting on the place of Islam in the modern world. Reading and engaging with Faizan Rashid’s translation is a good place to start when considering how this translation operates as a manifestation of such ignored civilizational and scholarly dialogue that holds multiple answers about how engaged Muslims are with the most sophisticated philosophical ideas from the west (regardless of whether the same is reciprocated or not within mainstream media).

The intellectual tendency of post-modernism is characterized by negation or absence. The core premise of this ideology is the evasion of ‘presence’ and resisting the desire to conjoin knowledge with reality. Among the masters of the postmodernist discourse are Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, and the facts mentioned above are evidently noticeable in their works. While mutually conflicting concepts may be unacceptable to the intellect, they are considered to be part of reality by these thinkers. Jacques Derrida made post-modernism a literary theory in the form of post-structuralism. According to Derrida, a word is a vessel of meaning, just like the mind. Feminism and post-structuralism are two theoretical movements that could be considered to embody such a stance.

Among the contemporary thinkers, Foucault is one thinker with whom what I find most meaningful and attractive in terms of my intellectual engagement is a disagreement so fundamental that it has reached a point of provocation and irritability. Be that as it may, this radical variance does not automatically preclude me from accepting the extraordinary nature of his thought and influence. Great thinkers tend to have this peculiar quality. They are beyond the artificial binary of total contradiction and absolute concurrence. Perhaps, Foucault is the last major theoriser of modernity. Here, theory refers to conceptualising a definer that would encompass all subsidiary elements, including their contradictions and differences, within a unified sphere of articulation. Foucault has a secondary theory, which he calls the theory of Episteme. Episteme cannot be interpreted using/into a single word or term. In terms of definition, Episteme refers to the content, substance and nature of knowledge, all at once. (It is the limit of knowledge too and the constitution/nature of knowledge.) According to Foucault, every tradition, or in other words, every age, has a specific episteme.   No intellectual or theoretical movement can claim to transcend the boundaries defined by its Episteme; which created it. An episteme belonging to a certain period may be used a reference to another, but it cannot become its rationale, its evidence. Episteme involves successfully verifying different perspectives to analyse a single entity and inventing an efficacious practice for accepting them in their totality and comprehensiveness.

In our age and time, postmodernity or postmodernism is one such episteme that is in pursuit of its own definition before it can go on to define anything else. It is a sphere imposing and establishing certain invisible and intangible boundaries whose circumference is yet to be measured. From a cultural point of view, it could be argued that in the history of humankind, an ethos such as this is unparalleled.

Claiming the verification of a new episteme by demolishing all foundations, including all its components and, in turn, foregrounding the intellectual, aesthetic and cultural, and if we want to make it more intense, then existential zeal on this episteme is postmodernism. Although these attitudes are visible in the academic, literary and cultural discourse, yet they do not equip us with the grip to formulate a concrete definition.

This is because any theoretical perspective or cultural attitude requires the past to define itself. However, postmodernism has dispensed itself from the past. And it wants to display itself as independent from its history because it is precisely this independence that it intends to stage as the justification for its existence. In any case, a relatively simple introduction of post-modernism is that since modernity has been unsuccessful, traditionalism has become frivolous and ineffective and all methods to verify reality have been perished, and conceptions of interpreting reality have become meaningless to the point of ridicule. Humankind has to reconstruct its relationship with its metaphysical and phenomenological objects with an altogether new meaning and sensibility. Now, I am not passing these verdicts on my own. I am merely describing the critical arguments that originate in a postmodern condition and the desires, hopes, and schema it engenders. So, what I have mentioned so far, it could be argued that these are the primary objectives of postmodernism. But, the one who engages with these does not explicitly signify any specific context with regard to that. Even one does not identify him with them. Thus, it is possible that in all this discussion, it fails to appear whether postmodernism in its definition, like other philosophical themes, contains any specific signifiers and a defined scope, or not. Just like we determine the definition of modernity, or just as we might define the principles of classicism, postmodernism cannot be defined in this manner. However, an attempt to define it could very well be made, even if partly so that we approach it with a little less ambiguity. The discussion that I am about to pursue here is divided into three parts or, that is how they ought to be divided, and I am not sure if I would be able to successfully bring the three of them into our current discussion. The first part is that the stimulants of postmodernism should be specified. The second part is that what factors constitute postmodernism in the present, this issue has to be resolved. And, the third part is that what its criticisms are. Thus, the first section is based on the definitive proponents and preceding factors of postmodernism. In the second part, its conditions will be discussed, or that is something we will try to do. And in the third section, it will be critically analyzed.

After the arrival of the Cartesian movement, there was a trend of rejection of a singular proposition in the West, and it was that the predominant tendency before Descartes was that, despite the differences in their manifestations and scope of being, things are essentially the same – their reality, principle and origin being the same. Whether they belong to the world of phenomena or the metaphysical realm, they are but one and the same. The principle by which these things are originally the same, that principle in its nature, is metaphysical. Along with that, the other tradition was that things, whether they belong to the metaphysical world or the phenomenological world, their ontological basis, that is, the justification of their existence would always be the same. That is, their ontological logic, that logic which affirms their existence, is the same. So, this was the predominant method, while acknowledging the distinctions of things in the appearance, and keeping in mind the distinction of their physical limits, their reality, the essential reality, was discovered. This process of discovery was not based on the apparent differences and implications of things; rather it was done in the light of a metaphysical logic. This method resolved many issues, but gave rise to new problems as well. And, to get rid of those problems, there is a dated fashion that one could just reject the metaphysical logic. However, by doing so, it has never happened that one could bid farewell to the realities of the physical and material world. What happens is that rejection of the logic, which is based on metaphysical concepts, becomes the rejection of the metaphysical principles of existence itself. But, even with this rejection, the problem could not be resolved, which at last Descartes set himself to resolve. That is, these two domains – physical and metaphysical, mind and body, or material and transcendental – do not imply the same principle, that they are not the signifiers for one signified thing, and that they are not twin towers standing on common grounds. Their law of affirmation – that is their metaphysical truths, principles, and physical properties and condition do not have a unitary signification. So, their laws of affirmation, functional logic, significance, and reality are all different. For this reason, Descartes’ theory has been called ‘dualism’. Descartes proposed that we can neither understand nor solve these problems unless we consider them both as real and effective in parallel and independent of each other. Which problems does he have in mind? Those which human beings, eventually and definitely, face in their intellectual, practical and moral development. The modern West has remained committed to Descartes’ proposition. Both the soul and matter exist with the same certainty, but they are completely different in the state of existence, condition and significance. The law of causality of one cannot be extended to the other.

The existential constitutes of one cannot be traced in another. Suppose we were to use hyperbole to describe all the cultural development of the West. In that case, we might say that among the guiding principles of Western cultural evolution is Descartes’ theory as well. Similarly, the other major contribution in the evolution of the modern West is that of Nietzsche. Nietzsche is someone who rejected all human limits and boundaries. Rather, he went further and scornfully destroyed the frame of existence in which human beings are moulded. If asked who has relatively contributed the most in shaping the modern West, at least I would name Nietzsche. Among the earlier figures, if there is anyone that the postmodernists follow, or do not reject completely, that thinker is arguably only Nietzsche. Nietzsche did not propose the reformation of humankind like the modernists and masters of postmodernism. Instead, he wanted to destroy humankind in its existential structure. According to him, humankind is suffering from such an existential flaw that requires destruction instead of reformation. The body should not be reconstructed, but be totally destroyed. Till the human condition along with all phenomena is not destroyed, the conditions for a fulfilling life will not arise. Pure negation, one of the organizing principles of postmodernity could be traced back to Nietzsche’s penchant for dismantling the human condition in its entirety.

After Nietzsche, the third most important figure of postmodernism is Martin Heidegger. In obvious terms but a complex and abstruse style, Heidegger explained that among human instincts the most primitive and strongest desire is not the desire of being, or to exist as being. Rather, it is the desire to nothingness, to not be, that is the most overwhelming desire of human psyche. So the most profound experience of humankind, its most enticing condition, the most essential element in its individuality, and the most significant and meaningful constituent in the formation of all of its ideas is its death, not life. Hence, the most real, individual and complete experience of humankind is the experience of death. Things are not complete in themselves until they become exclusively singular, or until they forge a meaningful relation with individuality, or until they become a part of individuality. Heidegger is that person who, with a combination of intellectual and aesthetic reasoning, has deconstructed the complexities and depths of the human psyche. Contrary to the hitherto German philosophical tradition, Heidegger has shown all tenets of truths to be a part of the psychological condition of humankind. Thus, in the tradition of philosophical investigation of truth, Heidegger is perhaps the first thinker who made the unlimited potential of psyche and language a means for reaching the truth. Heidegger was a contemporary of Allama Iqbal, and if a comparative study is done of the two, it would lead us to some interesting conclusions. The tendency to posit humankind in the centre of the realm of truths, as you may note, is overwhelmingly present in both Heidegger and Iqbal. Iqbal views humankind, the centre of truths, in such a perspective that can be brought under the superscription of moral idealism or religious romanticism. But, like his other famous contemporary Bergson, Heidegger posits his centrality of humankind in the human psyche’s rational and existential foundation. While Iqbal wants to actualize the Ideal Human, Heidegger seeks to idealize the real human. However, to Heidegger, humankind’s real urge is not a drive to life, but that to death, and therein lies the most meaningful experience. Life is an inadequate vessel for meaning, a little of what exceeds its capacity. One reason for this is its brevity, and the other is its being in motion. And, this motion too is bound to an insignificant, transitory flow of time. To be sure, the nature of sensibility these propositions correspond to, we do not seek that sort of sensibility, let alone acquire it. Heidegger provided a foundation to this nihilism, in which Nietzsche had created a metaphysical dread. The dread of which Nietzsche is a precursor in thought and speculation, which led humanity into a self-contempt, and its parallel cannot be found in any other account of human history. Nietzsche, on a philosophical level, built such a grand architecture of absurdism in front of which all structures of meaning seem insignificant. Verging on the limitlessness, Nietzsche’s exhorting dread is the most powerful attack on metaphysics. But, if we try to realize the stimulation behind it, then it in fact appears to be metaphysics. Nietzsche sets his aims so high that they seem impossible to achieve. This too is Nietzsche’s motive, and he does so deliberately to induce self-contempt in the individual and create a condition for yearning in him. He successfully made us believe, rather it would be better to say that he impressed upon our psyche, that meaning or reality is beyond human. Humankind is a creation of its own illusions that are stamped on all over its existential world.

Astoundingly Heidegger, continuing on the expository course charted out by Nietzsche, made the feeling of death virtually palpable, both on a sensorial plane, and also on those planes, where such thoughts are formed which are idealized by humankind with its collective will and single-mindedness. If we look at it from this perspective, then some of the things that Nietzsche said were made even more enticing, efficacious, and intimate by Heidegger. The persuasive allure invigorated in nihilism by Nietzsche was staged by Heidegger as the fundamental condition and consequence of being. In a way what Heidegger did was condense the Nietzschean ideal to make it more applicable, thereby making it definitive enough to be actualized. One may argue that at the core of the postmodern condition, the Nietzschean ideals are either already actualized, or are in the process of actualisation. It could be said that there are certain people who have an uncanny ability to speculate about the future. Even if such people were born around 2000 BC, even then their attendance would be in the time to come from our present. It is my opinion that only Heidegger is one such seer among the intellectual luminaries of existentialism. Everyone else is a bridge to the past. Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time is second to none in comparison to the other great philosophical texts. Not only does he explore uncharted topics to throw light on, the book also provides novel insights on pre-existing literature in traditions of philosophy with a syllogistic structure with no antecedents. Heidegger either brought far out concerns to the fore, or wrested existing discourses by dint of his imaginative philosophizing from his predecessors. He was a thinker who pushed human consciousness beyond rationality, and endowed it with an aesthetic sensibility and logic, and advanced its maturity and profundity. Many of us perhaps would be pleased to know that Heidegger has given the poet predominance over the philosopher, a sort of  payback to Plato on behalf of the poets one can say.

After these three, many thinkers used the terminology of postmodernism in a theoretical framework. Following architecture, music and cinema, it came into literature, and there began the process of its theorization. For the time being, we might keep its concepts from a philosophical definition. Though its philosophical foundations are often stated, they all precede its origin. Since we are not discussing the history of postmodernism, it would be better to delineate its characteristic features, some briefly and others in detail, without following chronology. We would try to not leave out anything important. So far the discussion of authors and books was considered, and that is not our only objective here. Possibly, some important figures might be overlooked, though it won’t make a big difference as the fundamental arguments will be covered in our discourse. It is elemental to understand its key argument to produce an overall idea of postmodernism. That central argument is none that of the narratives of truth can be accepted as universal, eternal, fixed, or essentially necessary. Two points should be noted here. First, as to postmodernists, all existence is simply narrative, and what we call truth is a ‘narrative’ too. As such, truth is a narrative which is defined in existential terms. Second, this narrative happens to be free of the logic of thought and authenticity. Hence, it is absurd to question its certainty or validity. Looking at it in this context, truths are but contemplations of a particular mode of consciousness in which there can be no universality or permanence. In postmodernism, a universal or fixed narrative is called meta-narrative or grand narrative, which means a narrative that imposes a meaning on the world and things, and explains their nature and objectives, as if truth exists exclusively as itself outside things. According to postmodernists, this is an ingenuity by means of which humankind enables its dominance over the world. In the words of Saussure, there is no truth, only interpretations. However, we interpret a thing that becomes its truth. Without coming out of the illusions of grand narratives, we cannot grasp the encompassing reality and actual demands of the relationship between humankind and the world. All things and truths are contingent and are expressed by an external presence. In the postmodern view, the predominance of grand narrative has harmed us not just intellectually but also socially and politically. It has given rise to coercion, inequality, absolutism, and oppression. Thus, postmodernists tend to avoid terms like ‘state’ or ‘society’. According to them, this is a social system or structure, and it is based on norms and discipline, which, at least in concept, happen to be general and fixed. Therefore, postmodernists do not engage in this idiom as they deem these norms and discipline as meta-narratives. In their vision, a society should be open to accommodate diversity and differences. However, certain things have their utilitarian values, and there is no dispute on that, neither should there be one. For instance, you and I might have different beliefs, but there is no disagreement between us over drinking the water. Your and my opinions are conflicting to each other, yet we mutually agree on travelling by the bus. This mutual consensus between us creates a mode of relation, and this mode of relation should be preserved and perfected. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any difference if your opinion is correct, or mine is not. Lyotard, one of the topmost icons of postmodernism, says that truths are micro, contingent, and temporal. They have to be accepted in their own conditions.

We have to realize our temporal relation with them and, instead of shaping our life around ideas, we will have to harmonize ourselves with this living presence. Doing so would cease those issues that have been plaguing human society. Owing to its theoretical theme, postmodernism should be called a ‘theory of de- realization’. This aspect in fact shows the great influence of Nietzsche on postmodernism. Without demolishing all grand narratives born of the relationship between humankind and the world, one cannot claim its existence in the postmodern condition. According to Lyotard, the last grand narrative was explained by Karl Marx. The social system which formed on the basis of Marx’s theories was as harmful as those social systems in whose rejection his theory is grounded. So, the system based on his theory was as coercive and oppressive as the systems against which Marx fought. There is a famous saying of Lyotard that if Karl Marx could be wrong, anything can be wrong.

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/faizanrashid/" target="_self">Faizan Rashid</a>

Faizan Rashid

Faizan Rashid is a research candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He previously completed a Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Delhi. He has a keen interest in philosophy and theory. In particular, he is interested in democratic theory, analytical liberalism and post-Marxist tradition. He spends his free time watching films and reading about religion.