Nietzsche and Islam

Nietzsche is known as one of the great Christian iconoclasts. (He once referred to Christianity as ‘mankind’s greatest misfortune’.) But what is not as well-known is Nietzsche’s attitude toward Islam — which is, surprisingly, quite positive. At several points, he expressed appreciation for ‘the wonderful world of Moorish culture’, and, particularly, to what he considered to be the life-affirming aspects of Islam. ‘Islam’, he writes, ‘presupposes men’ — which means, it takes into account our ‘natural’ ‘instincts’ and proceeds from there, rather than presupposing, say, unrealistic saints.

The notion that Islam is a tolerant religion may seem strange to modern readers more accustomed to the loud minority of Islamic fanatacists. But in the nineteenth-century, several key thinkers in the West expressed this same sentiment. Thomas Carlyle, for instance, in his book on hero-worship, writes that

Much has been said and written about the sensuality of Mahomet’s Religion; more than was just. The indulgences, criminal to us, which he permitted, were not of his appointment; he found them practised, unquestioned, from immemorial time in Arabia; what he did was to curtail them, restrict them, not on one but on many sides (Carlyle)

Embedded in this belief is the old Orientalist stereotype of the decadent East. (Nietzsche too speaks about the ‘rare and refined luxuries of Moorish life’.)

The difference between Nietzsche and Carlyle is that Carlyle argues against the Orientalist stereotype: ‘[Mohamed’s] Religion’, he writes, ‘is not an easy one: with rigorous fasts, lavations, strict complex formulas, prayers five times a day, and abstinence from wine, it did not “succeed by being an easy religion”’; whereas Nietzsche praises Islam’s apparent ‘sensuality’ — that is, its ‘origin’ in ‘male instincts’.

It is likely that Nietzsche’s appreciation for Islam was a rhetorical move against Christianity. In fact, in a letter to his sister, Elizabeth, he uses this same switch-to-Islam to score points against Christ:

Supposing we had believed since our youth that the welfare of our souls stems in its entirety from another person but Jesus, flows from, let us say, Mohammed. Would we not be sure we had partaken of the same blessings?

The point he ends up making is atheistic — but somehow still religiously inclusive: ‘I am certain, faith alone blesses, not the object of faith’. (Perhaps this is why he chose as his spiritual guide the obscure Persian prophet, Zarathrustra).

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Eddie Ejjbair

Eddie Ejjbair

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