University of Hawai'i Press

This article examines Hegel's assessment of Islam in terms of its fundamental beliefs, its philosophical tradition, its aesthetics, and its place in the history of philosophy as well as in world history. It then addresses some of the important questions arising from various scholarly assessments of Hegel's treatment of Islam, and it concludes by suggesting how we might make use of Hegel's own dialectical methods in abrogating ethnocentrism.

Hegel's philosophy is central to the very foundations of modern Western thought. His speculative system brought into confluence two movements—the Enlightenment and Romanticism—which have shaped modernity, and it gave rise to many streams of thought, including Marxism, Anglo-American Idealism, and various forms of historicism. Equally, his thought provoked widespread and pervasive reactions such as those embodied in positivism, realism, and existentialism.

One of the more recent series of reactions—particularly within the areas of literary and cultural theory—has been against Hegel's Eurocentrism, which has been examined in its treatment of Africa and the "Orient" in general. Hegel's vision of the "Orient" was often a product of the imagination, a canvas on which was painted the fabled exoticism, sensualism, and superstition of the East in general and of Islam in particular.1 Rather puzzlingly, Edward Said, who systematically documented these general characteristics in his Orientalism (1978), overlooked Hegel's treatment of Islam, which was one of the first attempts, along with those of Leibniz, Kant, Herder, and Schlegel, to situate Islam in the broader context of world history. In fact, Hegel is not even mentioned in this landmark work. Yet Hegel's philosophy might be said to articulate Eurocentrism at its profoundest level.

Hegel's analysis of Islam in particular adumbrates a long period of Western thinking about Islam that reaches into our own era. Here is a statement from his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:

Islam … hates and proscribes everything concrete; its God is the absolute One, in relation to whom human beings retain for themselves no purpose, no private domain, nothing peculiar to themselves. Inasmuch as they exist, humans do in any case create a private domain for themselves in their inclinations and interests, and these are all the more savage and unrestrained in this case because they lack reflection.… But since human beings are in fact practical and active, their purpose can only be to bring about the veneration of the One in all humanity. Thus the religion of Islam is essentially fanatical.2

Hence, Islam, according to Hegel, is characterized by caprice, lack of restraint, and fanaticism—all focused in an intrinsic impulse toward world conquest. Hegel did see Islam's assertion of an utterly transcendent Divinity as an essential stage of world history but one that had to be superseded by a more dialectical conception of God as embodied in the Christian Trinity. Indeed, as we can see later, he explicitly saw Islam as the "antithesis" of Christianity.3 A number of scholars have made excellent attempts to examine the place of Islam in Hegel's philosophy of history, but as yet there is no comprehensive analysis of Hegel's treatment of Islam that analyzes his [End Page 59] various texts in depth, especially in the light of the perspectives of Islamic thinkers themselves.4 The present essay will attempt to offer such a broad and detailed analysis. It will examine Hegel's assessment of Islam in terms of its fundamental beliefs, its philosophical tradition, its aesthetics, and its place in the history of philosophy and in world history generally. It will then address some of the important issues and dilemmas arising from various assessments of Hegel's treatment of Islam, and will conclude by suggesting how we might make use of Hegel's own methods in abrogating ethnocentrism.

Islamic Philosophy

It may be useful to begin with Hegel's estimation of the great Islamic thinkers. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1825–1826), Hegel has a brief section on Arab philosophers. Perhaps the first point to observe here is that his account of them is derived not from any reading of their works but primarily from two sources, one of these being the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, a treatise written in Arabic.5 Although Hegel acknowledges that the Arabs' study of Aristotle was "historically important" since Arabic was one of the main channels through which Aristotle became known in the West, he denies that Arabic philosophy "involves its own proper principle and stage in the development of philosophy." This is partly because—as Hegel reiterates Maimonides' claim—in their use of Greek philosophy the Arabs were not "guided by the nature of this material itself" but used it essentially to "defend Islam against the Christians." But a more important reason is given in Hegel's own charge—imposed upon the information provided by Maimonides—that Arabic philosophy is essentially abstract and irrational. The one "outstanding" philosophical school among the Arabs was the medabberim—Hegel cites Maimonides' Hebrew term for the school usually known as the mutakallimun, the dialecticians who practiced kalam or speculative theology. According to Hegel's report of Maimonides, the mutakallimun believed that "substance has many accidents but that no accident can endure for two moments; as soon as it arises it perishes too, and the substance (God) always creates another in its place."6 It is Hegel, not Maimonides, who equates "substance" with God. The doctrine referred to here is atomism-occasionalism, which holds that there is no necessary causal connection between created phenomena, each event being "created" by God as the sole agent.

While Hegel (following Maimonides) is right to suggest that this atomistic view of nature pervaded much Islamic theology, it is a measure of Hegel's tendentiousness in excluding Arabic philosophy from a formative place in the overall development of philosophy that he ignores or rather is unaware of the debates surrounding this issue of causality in the world. Even those who ardently advocated the atomistic doctrine, such as the Mu'tazilites, were essentially rational theologians who drew much fire from more conservative thinkers such as the followers of al-Ash'ari, and the theologian al-Ghazali. But even these theological opponents agreed with this particular doctrine and defended it on rational grounds. More importantly, Hegel (unlike Maimonides) [End Page 60] entirely ignores the Arab philosophers (as opposed to theologians), such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who interpret the notion of agency both literally and metaphorically so as to defend the principle of causality among worldly phenomena and also to accommodate the traditional view that God is the sole cause or agent.

Ibn Rushd states that "all the other causes that He [God] made to be subservient are not active except metaphorically[,] since they owe their existence to Him and it is He who causes them to exist as causes."7 Foreshadowing David Hume in an ironic manner, Ibn Rushd goes so far as to assert that God is "the Inventor of the substances of all the existing things that are conjoined to those causes that habit has led us to describe as their causes."8 Ibn Rushd anticipates Hume's view that what we perceive as a causal relation between entities is actually merely a "constant conjunction" of two entities that we habitually observe together; but whereas Hume therefore refuses to designate this conjunction as causality, Ibn Rushd attributes to God the causality underlying the habitually perceived conjunction. He concludes that "from the consensus of the Muslims that there is no other agent than God Almighty should not be inferred the denial of agents in the visible world altogether. For it is from the existence of the agent [in the visible world], that we infer the existence of the agent in the invisible world."9 Interestingly, further undermining Hegel's claim as to the historical redundancy of Arabic philosophy, such arguments from analogy were to surface again in Aquinas.

Ibn Rushd quotes the same analogy from al-Ghazali that Hegel quotes (via Maimonides): that of the pen writing. According to al-Ghazali, the writer does not move the pen, for the movement is "an accident" created by God.10 But Ibn Rushd points out that this analogy is equivocal: "the pen is a writer and the man is a writer. Thus, just as the name of writing is applied equivocally to both of them … the same is true of the name of agent when it is applied to God Almighty and to all other causes."11 But, being unaware of such specific arguments of particular thinkers, Hegel quotes al-Ghazali's analogy secondhand and proceeds to make the following generalization:

All we can discern here is the complete dissolution of all interdependence, of everything that pertains to rationality.

… This abstract negativity and complete dissolution, coupled with the abiding of the one [substance], is the basic characteristic of the Oriental mode of representation. Oriental writers are, above all, pantheists.… The Arabs developed the sciences and philosophy in this way, without defining the concrete idea as anything more than caprice. What is ultimate is rather the dissolution of everything concrete, or of determinacy, "in substance."12

Most Islamic theology is not, of course, pantheistic; nor are the assumptions of Arab science and philosophy somehow coterminous with those of theology. Indeed, in general, Hegel's characterization of this Arabic tradition overlooks the fact that it is a tradition of theology—not philosophy—that he is criticizing. And even an important strand of this, as represented by the Mu'tazilites, was essentially rational, as Ira Lapidus typically characterizes it: "The crucial tenet in their philosophy was that [End Page 61] God's being, the universe, and human nature are all rationally ordered and knowable to human reason. God is defined by his essence, which is reason."13 Hegel's assessment does not consider at all the Arabic philosophical tradition, especially rational-ists such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd. Ironically, had Hegel been acquainted with these, he would have seen that, for example, Ibn Sina's view of creation was heavily Neoplatonic, and that both al-Farabi and Ibn Sina characterized the relation between religion and philosophy in a manner that anticipated Hegel's own view of their connection, namely that religion presents imaginatively (or by means of what Hegel calls "picture-thinking") what philosophy presents in purely conceptual terms. As al-Farabi puts it, the philosopher's knowledge is theoretical and rests on "sure insight, whereas what is established in the souls of the multitude is through an image and a persuasive argument."14

Hegel's comments on Arabic philosophy perhaps embody the structural limitations of Orientalism in its most Eurocentric mode. The philosophical foundations are often based on secondhand or thirdhand knowledge, characterized by a tendency to sweep all modes of thought into a pre-established dialectic whereby every particular is necessarily subsumed under a given universal. It is worth noting that one of Hegel's sources—the Jewish thinker Maimonides—is far more scrupulous than Hegel himself in his treatment of the Arab philosophers. Many aspects of Maimonides' own thinking emerge from his engaging at a profound level with their thought. While he disagrees with aspects of their Neoplatonic conception of God, he incorporates their idea of emanation into his own notion of God; and his argument against the mutakallimun's view that God knows only universals parallels that of al-Ghazzali; finally, he agrees to some extent with Ibn Sina on the connection between God's existence and essence, the proofs of God's existence, the theory of providence, and the human need for law.15

Hence, the Orientalist strain that typifies Hegel's account of the Arab philosophers was not culled entirely from Maimonides. Where, then, did it come from? Scholars such as Ian Almond have documented the twists and turns of Hegel's thinking about Islam as it was shaped by political events and his larger political affiliations. In contrast, the current account focuses on Hegel's actual arguments and their place in his broader philosophy. So it will be pertinent here to ask: why was Hegel so vehemently opposed to what he perceived to be the abstractness of the Arab conception of the world, which refused to grasp finitude as substantial?

This vehemence may reflect the religious origins—and persisting religious implications—of Hegel's own dialectic. In his Lesser Logic, when Hegel is explaining the connection of "being" to "essence," he impugns any abstract treatment of essence where this is viewed as "something unaffected by, and subsisting in independence of, its definite phenomenal embodiment."16 This would be the case, for example, if we posited that a man had a certain inner essence that was somehow not knowable. According to Hegel, this essence or inner self can only be known by its outward phenomenal appearance. Likewise, in the case of God: if He is postulated as pure essence, and nothing more, He will be unknowable and will have no connection to the finite world of appearances. "To look at God in this light," says Hegel, [End Page 62] "is especially characteristic of Judaism and also of Mohammedanism. The defect of these religions lies in their scant recognition of the finite."17 In a later section in his "Doctrine of Essence," Hegel likens Spinoza's conception of God—as substance only and not as an absolute person—to the general "Oriental" way of thinking, which holds that the finite world is "frail and transient." While this Oriental vision of the unity of substance "gives the basis for all further development," it fails to advance to the "principle of the Western world, the principle of individuality." Like Spinoza, "Jews and Mohammedans … know God … only as the most high, unknowable, and transcendent being." The vision shared by all of these "defrauds the principle of difference or finitude of its due."18 Substance in this vision is "a dark shapeless abyss" that engulfs all definite content and produces from itself nothing that has a "positive subsistence."19 Hence, according to Hegel, the Islamic view of God as pure substance or essence reduces Him to an empty absolute void of all determinate predicates.

There are a number of issues here. To begin with, according to Hegel, treating God as utterly transcendent and unknowable (a) reduces Him to an absolute "thing" rather than acknowledging Him as a personality; (b) embodies an abstract view of essence, as somehow dissociated from its phenomenal manifestations; and thereby(c) reduces both God and the finite world to abstractions, empty of determinate content. Hegel's dialectic, whether in logic or in history, invariably proceeds via a necessary interaction of universal and particular; so any mode of thought that dirempts these is invariably impugned by him as abstract. He in fact fails to understand what Maimonides—who had actually read the Arab philosophers—understands: that their conception of the relation between universal and particular is often governed by the Neoplatonic notion of emanation, or that, like Ibn Rushd, they did not actually deny causality among finite phenomena, merely urging that this operated with divine sanction. But one of the earliest roots of the Hegelian dialectic—and its insistence on the concrete universal—lies in his early theological writings.

Hegel and the Christian Trinity

To understand why Hegel was so intent on "othering" Islam, we need to grasp the basic elements of his own theological perspective, and especially his understanding of the Christian conception of the Trinity. In Hegel's thinking (whether earlier or later), God or the Logos is anything but transcendent. In his early essays "Positivity of the Christian Religion" and "The Spirit of Christianity," Hegel had argued that Christ opposed the Old Testament vision of the Logos as transcendent, and held that that "positivity" or reliance on external authority should be displaced by an inclination that conforms freely to the law. Moreover, urged Hegel, the Gospel should be harmonized with the demands of rational speculation. To this end, his understanding of God as the Trinity was formulated as a process of both faith and historical self-realization.20 Only after God passes through self-externalization in Nature and Man does He constitute the Trinity. In a sense, this might be regarded as the religious origin of Hegel's dialectic—arising from the need to rationalize the concept of the [End Page 63] Trinity. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1827) Hegel points out that the expression "God," to begin with, is merely an abstract name that receives its content only through cumulative recognition in the history of thought.21 The point is that it is only through human agency that the process of God is fulfilled.22 Hence, Hegel's strategy in explaining the Trinity is quite remarkable: he views God not as a thing or an entity but as a process—a dialectical process.

Whatever its significance in his later work, the notion of God was originally integrally tied to the dialectical structure of Hegel's thought. Given Hegel's insistence that religion in its highest phase embodies a concrete union of divine and human, a concrete manifestation of the divine in the human community, it is significant that he sees both Enlightenment thought and Islam as falling short—in different ways—of this concrete union and merely positing an abstract unity. To understand this, we need to recall that for Hegel faith is realized or reconciled with reality through three stages: that of the "heart," the private realm of passions and inclinations; that of "reflection," where thought rises to the level of the Understanding, which grasps reality by analyzing it, by breaking it down into finite and discrete components; and finally, that of speculation, which grasps things in their dialectical unity, rationality, and their place in the totality of things. According to Hegel, Enlightenment thought is arrested at the phase of "reflection": it can understand the relations between things only "externally," without discerning their underlying unity. It accords to things an independent and therefore abstract identity. And so it can see the unity of divine and human merely as an external relation, merely as "an absolute coupling of opposite determinations."23 The Enlightenment views God as the "supreme being," which is without definition or concreteness, and which is beyond cognition.24 In other words, the objective reality of God is negated into a beyond; what is left is this empty unity on one side and an abstract finitude on the other side where the objective reality of the world, and all objective determinations, are imprisoned within subjectivity. Hegel appears to be thinking of Locke and perhaps even more of Hume, who averred that all the human mind can know is its own impressions and ideas.

The second form of abstract unity between divine and human is embodied in Islam. Here, once again, God is posited as an abstract unity, without content or any determinate predicates. The difference is that where Enlightenment thought withdrew objective reality into subjectivity, in the Islamic vision "subjectivity has no being on its own account.… [I]nstead its vocation is to submerge itself in the unity of God, of the infinite. Thus the subject has no private purpose, and no absolute purpose other than that of willing itself to exist for this One, and it alone, of making its sole purpose the glory of the one God." While Islam has the same content as Judaism, it embodies a "purely abstract self-consciousness," whereas Judaism affirms some sense of particularity in its "sense of national value." Hegel accords Islam no place in the scheme of religious development. Rather, it is merely a rival of Christianity: in Islam, "Christianity finds its antithesis because it occupies a sphere equivalent to that of the Christian religion."25

In his subsequent statements—quoted at the beginning of this essay—Hegel asserts that "Islam … hates and proscribes everything concrete" and that its followers [End Page 64] "are all the more savage and unrestrained … because they lack reflection."26 Hence, Hegel denies to Islam even the status of "reflection"—the abstract understanding of the world as a series of finite and discrete particulars—that he accorded to the Enlightenment. Ironically, just a few lines earlier, Hegel had described what he took to be Christianity's contrasting vision, where the "surrender of the natural will and the coming to be of the [spiritual] self takes place through the negation of our [natural] self for the sake of our [spiritual] essence."27 Unwittingly, in these lines Hegel has accurately expressed the very definition of Islam: the "surrender" or submission of the human will to that of the divine. Interestingly, Hegel locates this submission within subjectivity itself, as a phenomenon that marks two states of the human self rather than a relation of the human self to God. But, irrespective of theological subtleties, Hegel's remarks embody the full range and depth of Eurocentrism's reductive characterization of Islam as essentially sunk in unreason, caprice, and fanaticism.

Islam in History

Perhaps all the more ironically, when Hegel offers a general characterization of Islam in his Philosophy of History, he fails to use the word "submission," and suggests instead that, in its devotion to "the abstract One," Islam makes "pure subjective consciousness—the Knowledge of this One alone—the only aim of reality."28 This seems to contradict not only Islamic doctrine but also Hegel's own earlier characterization of the Islamic God, in his lectures on religion, as utterly transcendent and unknowable. Having said this, Hegel's account of Islam here is altogether more positive, inasmuch as he accords to it some role in the historical development of thought. In general, the principle of Oriental thought, as Hegel sees it, is negative, embodying "an abandonment to mere nature—the enslavement of the Spirit to the world of realities."29 Only among the Jews did there exist a higher principle, whereby "adoration [was] paid to the One, as an object of thought." This unity, however, was "hampered" by particularity: "Jehovah was only the God of that one people.… [O]nly with the Jews had this God made a covenant." Hegel proceeds to offer the following beautifully articulate characterization:

This speciality of relation was done away with in Mahometanism. In this spiritual universality, in this unlimited and indefinite purity and simplicity of conception, human personality has no other aim than the realization of this universality and simplicity. Allah has not the affirmative, limited aim of the Judaic God. The worship of the One is the only final aim of Mahometanism, and subjectivity has this worship for the sole occupation of its activity, combined with the design to subjugate secular existence to the One.30

Whereas in his lectures on religion Hegel appears to view Jewish nationalism as a positive grounding of religion in particularity, his language here suggests that it was a defect to be overcome. But while Islam represents an advance over previous embodiments of the "Oriental principle," it nonetheless harbors a defect, namely that subjectivity is "absorbed" in the object, thereby depriving the One "of every concrete predicate." Hence, neither is subjectivity spiritually free nor is "the object of its [End Page 65] veneration- concrete."31 Hegel sees the Islamic God as a "purely intellectual" object of worship; while this does not accord with orthodox Islamic belief—in which the relationship to God is not primarily intellectual but one of faith—Hegel is right to say that in Islam all distinctions of nation, caste, race, and birth vanish, and what is of import is "only man as a believer."32 Hegel stresses—again foreshadowing modern preconceptions—that "the highest merit is to die for the Faith. He who perishes for it in battle, is sure of Paradise."33

Rather implausibly, Hegel attributes Islam's frowning on distinction and particularity to its origins in the desert, among the Arabs, where the "sense of the Formless has its especial abode," and where "nothing can be brought into a firm consistent shape." It is the abstract nature of their worship that makes Muslims fanatical. Hegel defines fanaticism as "an enthusiasm for something abstract—for an abstract thought which sustains a negative position towards the established order of things." One might remark that it is a similar abstractness that always marks the first stage of Hegel's own dialectic whereby what is merely given in the world must be negated and mediated by thought. The difference seems to be that, as Hegel characterizes it, "the essence of fanaticism" is "to bear only a desolating destructive relation to the concrete." However, in yet another twist, Hegel immediately adds: "but that of Mahometanism was, at the same time, capable of the greatest elevation—an elevation free from all petty interests, and united with all the virtues that appertain to magnanimity and valor. La religion et la terreur was the principle in this case, as with Robespierre, la liberté et la terreur."34

We can remark later on this intrinsic coupling of Islam's very virtues with "terror," just as the French Revolutionary spirit, which once motivated Hegel's historical schematics, is now also branded with this prescient term. But what is striking in the immediate context is that Hegel contrasts Islam's "majesty of freedom" directed by a unitary passion with a Europe sunk in "a multitude of relations."35 The "reckless fervor" that Islam inspires can show itself in cruelty, but it also expresses itself in the "glowing warmth of the Arab and Saracen poetry." This "perfect freedom of fancy" enables an "absorption in the life of its object … so that selfishness and egotism are utterly banished." This apparent change in Hegel's appreciation of Islam seems to take on a new momentum for the rest of this section, flooded with superlatives, where he goes so far as to say: "Never has enthusiasm, as such, performed greater deeds." Hegel remarks on both the rapidity of the Arab conquests and the "speed with which the arts and sciences attained among them their highest bloom." He describes the courts of the various Caliphs (rulers of the Islamic empire) as "resplendent with the glory of poetry and all the sciences." These courts were often marked by an egalitarianism where "each one sustains a relation of equality to the ruler."36

However, Hegel again resorts to extreme idealism in his explanation of the decay of Islamic societies. The great Caliphal empires, he suggests, dissolved because "on the basis presented by Universality nothing is firm." When fanaticism subsided, no moral principle remained, and while Arab science and knowledge had a salutary effect upon the West—notably on figures such as Goethe—the "East itself … sank [End Page 66] into the grossest vice." The "most hideous passions" and sensual enjoyment—sanctioned, says Hegel, by the first form of Islamic doctrine—replaced fanaticism. Now "driven back into its Asiatic and African quarters … Islam has long vanished from the stage of history at large, and has retreated into Oriental ease and repose."37

In Hegel's vision, even the achievements of Islamic culture were only contingently world-historical: they happened to affect European history, as it were, from the outside, from its boundaries, as in the transmission of Greek philosophy or Goethe's personal reading of Eastern literature. But he does not allow Islam a formative role in shaping world history.

Again, it is clear that the motivation behind Hegel's historical treatment of Islam is to situate it as the antithesis of Christian historical development. In his Philosophy of History Hegel asserts that the "German Spirit is the Spirit of the new World. Its aim is the realization of absolute Truth as the unlimited self-determination of Freedom—that Freedom which has its own absolute form itself as its purport.… The destiny of the German peoples is to be the bearers of the Christian principle."38 What is striking in this passage is that Hegel sees this principle of freedom as carried forward by the German spirit, which he aligns with "the Christian principle." It is through the Reformation that "Spirit finds the goal of its struggle and its harmonization, in that very sphere which it made the object of its resistance—it finds that secular pursuits are a spiritual occupation."39 It is here that Islam, however contingently for Hegel, super-venes on the world stage. While the West undergoes this long process of purification of Spirit, Islam is rapidly effecting "the purification requisite for developing Spirit in the abstract." The latter, Hegel remarks, "does not need a long process."40 But Hegel, in thus foreshortening the influence of Islam to an exclusive consideration of its early years of conquest—which spread the principle of a transcendent God—effectively ignores the remaining thirteen centuries of Islamic history.

Islam in Hegel's Aesthetics

Hegel's treatment of Islam in its aesthetic dimension appears on the surface to be more generous, but effectively documents the same essential underlying defects. In his lectures on aesthetics, he situates what he calls "Mohammedan" poetry at an early stage of the development of art, the stage of Symbolic art, which will eventu ally be superseded by Classical art, which in turn gives way to the highest form, Romantic art. Hegel characterizes the Symbolic stage as the "artistic pantheism" of the Orient, which attempts to coerce any object, however trivial, into bearing a spiritual significance. If we briefly look at the other stages or forms of art as described in Hegel's Aesthetics, we can see more clearly why he relegates Islamic art to such a primordial phase. The second form is Classical art, which, says Hegel, embodies the Idea in an appropriate shape, namely the human form.41 His reasoning is that God, or the "original Concept," created the human form as an expression of spirit. But such personification comprises precisely the limitation of classical art because the Idea or Spirit is thereby "determined as particular and human, not as purely absolute and eternal."42 [End Page 67] This defect requires a transition to a higher stage, the Romantic form. The unity achieved in Classical art between the Idea and its expression is here annulled, and the opposition or difference of these is reinstated, although at a higher level than that of Symbolic art. But Hegel nonetheless regards the Classical mode as the "pinnacle" of artistic form, urging that its limitation is inherent in art itself, which must use sensuous forms to express a spiritual content. For spirit is pure thought or ideality whose infinitude cannot be expressed by outward, sensuous means. Hence, Romantic art cancels the "undivided unity" of Classical art because it expresses a higher content, namely Spirit or Idea at a higher stage of self-development, coinciding with Christianity's view of God, a stage of self-conscious knowledge that enables man to rise above his animal nature and to know himself as spirit.43

Given this schema, Hegel's positioning of Islamic art itself qualifies his apparent praise of it. Within the stage of Symbolic art, Hegel views the Sublime as having transcended earlier and cruder symbolic forms such as the merely intuitive unity (of meaning and form) in Zoroastrian art and the "fantastic symbolism of the Indians." He defines the sublime in general as "the attempt to express the infinite, without finding in the sphere of phenomena an object which proves adequate for this representation." This represents progress because it liberates the Absolute, lifting it above every immediate existent, and this liberation "though abstract at first, is at least the foundation of the spirit."44 In other words, art that expresses the sublime frees spirit or meaning from the constraints of matter but does so in an abstract manner, whereby the two subsist merely in a negative relation. The one is not expressed or embodied in the other. There follows an astonishing statement that only Hegel could have formulated: "This outward shaping which is itself annihilated in turn by what it reveals, so that the revelation of the content is at the same time a supersession of the revelation, is the sublime."45 In other words, as soon as an attempt is made to express Spirit in material form, the revelation exceeds its expression, and is effectively unutterable—just as Dante's words increasingly failed him as his vision of the divine became more intense, leaving words that could express only the attempt, the failure. It is this way of apprehending the Absolute, or God, that according to Hegel characterizes Indian art, Islamic poetry, and Christian mysticism. In his other works Hegel had criticized the abstractness of the Islamic conception of God, one that could sustain no definite relation to the world of phenomena. But, somewhat surprisingly, he sees art from these three cultures as essentially pantheistic, whereby "substance is envisaged as immanent in all its created accidents."46

Why this seeming anomaly between Islamic doctrine and Islamic poetry? The conception of God in Islamic poetry, especially, as Hegel understands it, in that of the Persians, is somewhat different from the conception contained in orthodox religious doctrine. The difference is expressible in one word: mysticism. Whereas orthodox Islam presents the notion of a God who essentially transcends and is remote from the finite world, some branches of Islamic mysticism or Sufism propound a notion of pantheism. Hegel does not allude to the Sufi tradition in this section, but his description of the actual practice of the Persian poets (he states that "Rumi … is to be praised above all") is accurate: [End Page 68]

Since the poet longs to descry the Divine in everything and does actually descry it, in face of it he now sacrifices his own personality, but he all the same apprehends the immanence of the Divine in his inner being thus enlarged and freed; and therefore there grows in him that serene inwardness, that free good fortune, that riotous bliss characteristic of the Oriental who, in renouncing his own particularity, immerses himself entirely in the Eternal and the Absolute, and feels and recognizes in everything the picture and presence of the Divine.… The love of God—with whom man identifies his personality by the most boundless surrender … constitutes here the centre.…47

This passage describes the Sufi notion of fana or dying to oneself and baqa or living in a manner remolded by the divine presence. Interestingly, this process is almost identical with the accounts of mystical union with God offered by early Neoplatonists. In this passage, Hegel rightly equates "boundless surrender" (which would be a rather elegant translation of orthodox "Islam") with the "love" prioritized by Sufism. The mode of relationship to God points to a different conception of God, one who inheres in things as opposed to one who stands abstractly above them. It is in the very sacrifice of the self to God that one attains, as Hegel characterizes it, a free substantiality and parrhesia of feeling. Hegel remarks on how Goethe was "inspired by the breadth of the East" to write songs of similarly "free feeling and abandon" to coin such images as the "raindrops of Allah."48

It is interesting that, even in an otherwise commendatory account, Hegel cannot resist characterizing the Oriental as experiencing "riotous bliss," which in Goethe becomes a "boundless bliss"—boundless, but firmly situated within a new, transcending, context of Romantic art. Indeed, even the Sufi mysticism to which Hegel enthusiastically (but only implicitly) alludes is merely a stage on the way to the Absolute subsequently realizing itself first in sublimity proper, which is higher than pantheism, and ultimately in a Christian conception of the divine. Having said all this, we might note that when Hegel comes to the end of his lectures on aesthetics where he characterizes the highest stage of Romantic art as a "rich consciousness … entirely absorbed in the circumstances" and transforming the objective world into "something new, beautiful, and intrinsically valuable," he alludes once more to Arab and Persian poetry, which "in the free bliss of … imagination … deals with its objects entirely contemplatively" and with the free play that marks the highest Romantic art. And again he alludes to Goethe's poems in the Divan, influenced by Eastern writers, which rises above his other poems inasmuch as "love is transferred wholly into the imagination."49

Yet, talking of the Oriental epic in the second volume of his Aesthetics, Hegel characterizes Eastern poetry as "primitive because it always keeps closer to viewing things in terms of the substantive whole and to the absorption of the individual consciousness in this one whole.… [T]he individual cannot work his way through to… independence of personal character."50 Hegel sees this characteristic of individuality expressed in the pre-Islamic poetry of the pagan Arabs, which presents "solid and independent individuals." But after the Muslim conquests, "this original heroic character is gradually effaced." Even Firdausi's Shah Namah is not properly an epic since it "does not have as its centre an individually self-enclosed action." And the [End Page 69] Persian epic eventually modulated into didacticism, as with the poet Sa'adi, after which it was "buried in the pantheistic mysticism" taught by Rumi. Indeed, the true epic is not reached until the era of classical Greece and Rome.51 In historical terms, an epic action for Hegel typically presents a "productive collision," as in the war of Troy, which sets a whole nation in motion and which brings about a turning point in world history, leading to a higher stage of civilization. The Greek victory, for Hegel, represents the triumph of West over East, of European rationality over "Asiatic brilliance" and "patriarchal unity."52

Again, what is lacking in Islamic poetry as in the religion, as contrasted with Christianity and Western art, is the principle of rationality as well as that of individuality. Hegel acknowledges that his contemporary world is not conducive to epic and needs another form. Much later, Georg Lukács will argue that this new form was the novel, which is the "epic" of the godless modern world. Still, Hegel is able to envision a future epic, taking root in America, which might describe "the victory … of living American rationality over imprisonment in particulars."53 Hegel, who had never seen America, would have been surprised to learn that the most popular "epic" in that country today—the masnavi—was penned not by Whitman or any other American poet but by the Islamic mystical Persian poet Rumi (1207–1273).

In general, Hegel's comments on Eastern literature are desultory and somewhat inconsistent. For example, he says at one point that the love songs of the Persian poet Hafez (ca. 1325–ca. 1389) express the "whole living individuality" of the poet; later, he cites the same poet as an example of the Oriental poet's mind being "sunk" in externality.54 Applying Western literary conventions to the canons of Eastern poetry, he confidently concludes that the Greek and Roman epic is the ideal embodiment of "epic proper," just as Greek poetry affords the "perfect example" of the lyrical form.55

Assessing Hegel's Treatment of Islam

Ian Almond insightfully catalogs the variety of registers in which Hegel assesses Islam: as a crude Kantianism (in its abstractness), as a difference-annihilating anarchism, as an economic and political rival to Christianity, as a variation of Judaism freed from nationalism, as a magnificent experiment in sublimity, and as a West Asian Caucasian faith rivaling Caucasian Europe.56 He is perhaps right to speak of Hegel's "multiple identities" and the "many voices" in which he speaks of Islam. But I would argue that these many voices are underlain by a greater coherence—at least of agenda—than is allowed by Almond's account.57 Moreover, Almond attempts to explain Hegel's enthusiasm for Persian and Arab poetry by reference to his allegedly Romantic outlook, in which, for example, the "fanatical" deeds of the Arabs became "sublime." But, as Lukács has shown in great detail in The Young Hegel and elsewhere, Hegel was not a Romantic, although he may have taken over some strains of Romantic thought from Goethe and others. More than any Enlightenment philosopher, Hegel was a rationalist, one who situated reason as a process within history, operating through the development and interaction of both subjectivity and objectivity. [End Page 70]

Undoubtedly, Hegel's comments on the various aspects of Islamic philosophy and culture are by no means consistent, and, as Almond is acutely aware, they are colored by his complex and changing political positions. But the general position of Islam within Hegel's dialectic—on both historical and metaphysical planes—is clear. Almond himself acknowledges that, in rejecting the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and in promulgating a notion of God as utterly transcendent, Islam in Hegel's eyes failed to grasp identity as incorporating negativity through the othering of itself.58

And Almond is right to argue, as many others have, that the treatment of the non-European in Hegel's thought is not something marginal but represents "a key context."59 But Almond perhaps goes too far, in this case, in suggesting that Islam challenged Hegel's "entire notion of identity."60

It would be more accurate to say that Islam embodied a view of identity that was viewed by Hegel as abstract and naive, being sublated by his dialectic—as were other one-sided notions—into a more comprehensive and historically constructed notion of identity. Having said this, what does threaten to unsettle Hegel's dialectic, and indeed his entire system, is the degree to which Hegel's "Islam" is a myth, based on second-and thirdhand sources and conflicting with the actual ways in which Islam can be seen to have developed in historical terms. In other words, Hegel's dialectic is sustained by a vision of Europe developing rationally toward "freedom," a Europe whose own identity is forged in contrast with, and by superseding or sublating, an otherness whose content is mythical, the product of a Eurocentric imagination—whether in the case of Islam, or the Orient in general, or Africa.

In terms of what was said earlier about the theological origins of the dialectic and its persistent embodiment of the historical importance of the Incarnation and the Trinity, Hegel's treatment of Islam—as essentially abstract in its conception of the deity and the world, like much Enlightenment thought—indicates the conservative re-orientation of his dialectic, moving away from its foundations in French Revolutionary principles and seeking a new basis in the "Christian" principles of the Protestant Reformation, prominent in Hegel's later thought as the origin of the modern "German" world, whose own principles will be embodied in the world of the future: America.61

A number of commentators have remarked on the "temporal discrepancy" in Hegel's treatment of Islam. If Christianity supersedes Islam, asks Sai Bhatawadekar, "How does one explain the fact that it arose after Christianity?"62 Jean-Joseph Goux devotes considerable space to this issue, remarking that for Hegel's philosophy of history, the "sequence Moses-Jesus-Muhammad is a serious conundrum."63 And, most strikingly, Slavoj Žižek provides a rather provocative "solution" to this conundrum. Before looking briefly at Žižek's analysis, it is worth remarking that, in seeking to unravel the architectonic of Hegel's Eurocentrism, we need to caution ourselves against misrepresenting that structure. The perception of Islam as a temporal or historical "anomaly" in Hegel's system would seem to neglect crucial features of his understanding of Christianity, of which only two—perhaps the most obvious—need be mentioned here. First, it overlooks the point that for Hegel the Trinity was not somehow a simple fact, but a process, which was worked out through the entire [End Page 71] course of human history. Hegel saw God or the Absolute as embodied not just in Jesus but in humankind generally. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, which date back to a manuscript of 1821, Hegel is continually modifying his view of the threefold structure of divinity; he asserts in fact that the very unity of God is "continually becoming more determinate."64

Second, the charge of temporal incongruity fails to discern that, for Hegel, "Christianity" itself was a historical process, which did not somehow achieve completion and perfection in the moment of Incarnation, but only through subsequent developments such as Protestantism's integration of the Christian principle—freedom—into the principle of the modern world, namely that Spirit takes the form of "free and rational thought."65 Indeed, the process of this completion lasts until the end of history. And in this long process, Islam is by no means excluded from history by Hegel. It comprises in fact the first stage of the "spiritual empire of subjectivity," which arises in the early Middle Ages.66

In his rather striking answer to this alleged temporal dilemma, Žižek suggests a new Hegelian triad, moving from the "immediate" or abstract monotheism of Judaism, through the Christian Trinity, and ending in Islam, which is the "truly universal monotheism."67 But there is a fundamental problem with this scheme. It is entirely implausible that "Islam"—whether one sees this embodied in the Qur'an, the sayings of Muhammad, or the traditions of Islamic law—somehow "sublates" (transcends and preserves) Christian doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity is dramatically repudiated in the Qur'an;68 hence, Žižek's triad would represent not a "progression" but an outright return to the monotheism of Judaism—and this is exactly how the Qur'an sees itself.69

In a sense, despite Žižek's noble intention of adapting Hegel's dialectic toward a more consistent and pluralistic historical pattern, his own endeavor is Orientalistic inasmuch as he deigns to speak for the other, to represent it externally as an out sider, without availing himself of any "internal" perspective as might be furnished by scholars working within the relevant traditions. In brief, then, there are many aspects of Hegel's Eurocentrism for which we might legitimately take him to task; but to charge him with this kind of historical inconsistency is to oversimplify his actual views; and in adapting his dialectic toward more wholesome ideological ends there are dangers of falling into complicity with the very habits that often unconsciously "inform" the Eurocentrism from which we are struggling to disengage.

What to Do with Hegel?

Some critics, such as Teshale Tibebu, see Hegel's work as central to the very articulation of Eurocentric views in modern Western thought. But, despite Hegel's evident ideological predilections—his Protestant Eurocentrism—and despite the many problems inhering in his views of Islam, Africa, and the entire "East," he effectively pioneered new possibilities in the treatment of Islam.70 To begin with, Hegel's positioning of Islam on the world-historical stage was echoed in the various analyses of Islam [End Page 72] conducted by Thomas Carlyle, Ernest Renan, and Marshall Hodgson, among many others. More recently, scholars have approached Islam from a rich variety of perspectives, including feminist, modernist, deconstructive, and psychoanalytical, which have themselves been shaped by Hegelian insights—the critique of essentialism, the notion of the relatedness of all concepts and entities, of human identity as a reciprocal and social phenomenon, of the world as a social and historical construction, of identity as intrinsically constituted by diversity, and of language as a system of human perception. Ironically, these newer approaches have drawn—sometimes explicitly but usually implicitly—upon various aspects of Hegel's philosophy to question the motives and methods of Orientalism as well as the use of "Islam" as an explanatory category.71

Sadly, however, in the face of the benign influences of Hegel's method, the distasteful content of his analyses of Islam continues to shape much modern discourse. We appear to have in Hegel's account of Islam not only all the ingredients of Eurocentrism but even of an Islamophobia which has reared its head in the twenty-first century: the view that Islam is intrinsically fanatical, irrational, advocates sensualism, is intrinsically associated with la terreur, was spread by the sword, and is bent on world conquest. Modern Islamophobes, however, would hardly agree with Hegel's view that Islam has vanished from the stage of world history, viewing it rather as perhaps the starkest of threats to what they see as "the" Western way of life. Hegel's vision has precipitated starkly dualistic notions of the connections between East and West, and clamorous warnings of a "clash of civilizations" in the work of Fukuyama and others. But, as indicated above, it is perhaps Hegel's own dialectical method that will enable us to transcend his own ethnocentric legacy. This dialectic points to a treatment of Islam in its historical contexts; it points beyond the binary opposition of fixed notions of Eastern and Western "identity," beyond viewing "other" traditions as static voiceless objects and acknowledging their evolving subjectivity, and toward an inclusive or global totality that is truly organic and where each culture might play its part.

M.A.R. Habib

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Department of English, Rutgers University

Abbreviations are used in the Notes as follows:


G.W.F. Hegel. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Vols. I and II. Translated byT. M. Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.


G.W.F. Hegel. Early Theological Writings. Translated by T. M. Knox. With an Introduction and Fragments translated by Richard Kroner. 1948; reprint, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.


George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lectures on the History of Philosophy: The Lectures of 1825–1826. Vol. III, Medieval and Modern Philosophy. Edited by Robert F. Brown. Translated by R. F. Brown and J. M. Stewart. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1990. [End Page 73]


George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 1827. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988.


George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Vol. III, The Consummate Religion. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988.


George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Philosophy of History. Translated byJ. Sibree. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.


1. –The many works that have documented the portrayal of Islam as an Orientalist phenomenon beyond Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) include Albert Hourani's Islam in European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Frederick Quinn's The Sum of All Heresies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), and Ian Almond's History of Islam in German Thought (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).

2. LPR III, p. 243.

3. PH, pp. 356–357.

4. –It should be acknowledged that, as Kevin Thompson notes, a "proper examination" of Hegel's views on Islam is currently beyond us since these views are scattered through various works and since we do not yet have adequate critical editions of all these works. Nonetheless, it is possible, I think, to evince from these various texts a fairly coherent perspective. Thompson's own focus is on using Hegel's discussion of Islam to explore the connection between the theological and the political in Hegel's work (Kevin Thompson, "Hegel, the Political and the Theological: The Question of Islam," in Hegel on Religion and Politics, ed. Angelica Nuzzo [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013], p. 101). Some of the other analyses are addressed below; almost none of them—Ian Almond being the exception—engages with the actual views of Islamic thinkers or the traditions of Qur'anic exegesis.

5. –The other, more general, source was Gottlieb Tennemann's Geschichte der Philosophie. See LHP, p. 36 nn. 48–49.

6. –Ibid., p. 37.

7. –Averroes [Ibn Rushd], Faith and Reason in Islam: Averroes' Exposition of Religious Arguments, trans. Ibrahim Najjar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 111.

8. Ibid.

9. –Ibid., p. 114.

10. LHP, p. 38.

11. –Averroes, Faith and Reason in Islam, p. 111.

12. LHP, p. 38. [End Page 74]

13. –Ira M. Lapidus, Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: A Global History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 152.

14.Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi (London: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 46–47.

15. –Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, 2 vols., trans. and ed. Shlomo Pines (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 1 : 57; 2 : 1, 22, 40; 3 : 20, 51.

16.Hegel's Logic: Being Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), trans. William Wallace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 164.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., p. 214.

19. Ibid., p. 215.

20. ETW, p. 273.

21. LPR, p. 115.

22. ETW, p. 258.

23. LPR III, p. 241. Hegel's account here is contained in his lectures of 1824.

24. Ibid., p. 241.

25. Ibid., pp. 242–243.

26. Ibid., p. 243.

27. Ibid.

28. PH, p. 356.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid., p. 357.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., pp. 357–358.

35. Ibid., p. 358.

36. Ibid., p. 359.

37. Ibid., p. 360.

38. Ibid., p. 341.

39. Ibid., pp. 354–355.

40. Ibid., p. 355. [End Page 75]

41. Aes, 1 : 77.

42. Ibid., p. 79.

43. Ibid., pp. 79–80.

44. Ibid., pp. 362–363.

45. Ibid., p. 363.

46. Ibid., p. 364.

47. Ibid., p. 368.

48. Ibid., pp. 369–370.

49. Ibid., p. 610.

50. Aes, 2 : 1094.

51. Ibid., pp. 1097–1098.

52. Ibid., pp. 1059–1062.

53. Ibid., p. 1062.

54. Ibid., pp. 1121, 1148.

55. Ibid., pp. 1098–1099, 1150.

56. –Almond, History of Islam in German Thought, p. 130.

57. –Sai Bhatawadeker's article "Islam in Hegel's Triadic Philosophy of Religion," Journal of World History 25, nos. 2–3 (2014): 397–424, does attempt to seek this broader coherence in Hegel's understanding of Christianity but in his treatment of Hegel's account of Islam he offers more of an overview, spanning around five pages, rather than a detailed analysis of Hegel's texts.

58. –Almond, History of Islam in German Thought, p. 125.

59. –Ibid., p. 109.

60. –Ibid., p. 122.

61. –Other critics have also indicated that Hegel's views of Islam were forged in the context of Europe's relation to the "other" of the Ottoman Empire. See esp. Susan Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Europe: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 25–26; Mohammad R. Salama, Orientalism and Intellectual History (London: Tauris, 2011), pp. 103 ff.; and Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam, trans. Caroline Beam-ish (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001). There has also been an intense debate about Hegel's alleged racism; see in particular the exchanges between Robert Bernasconi and Joseph McCarney, e.g., in Radical Philosophy 119 (May/June 2003): 32–37.

62. –Sai Bhatawadeker, "Islam in Hegel's Triadic Philosophy of Religion," p. 418. [End Page 76]

63. –Jean-Joseph Goux, "Untimely Islam: September 11th and the Philosophies of History," SubStance 37, no. 1 (2008): 60.

64. LPR, pp. 127–128.

65. LPH, p. 208.

66. Ibid., p. 205.

67. –Slavoj Žižek, "A Glance into the Archives of Islam,"

68. Qur'an, 5.116.

69. See, e.g., Qur'an, 2.136, 3.84.

70. –Michael Curtis' recent book Orientalism and Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) acknowledges that the "most influential early-nineteenth-century commentary on the Orient came from Hegel," but deals only in passing with Hegel, focusing on his treatment of despotism on pp. 66–67. Similarly, Teshale Tibebu's Hegel and Anti-Semitism (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2008) makes some pertinent references to Hegel's treatment of Islam, but of course his essential focus is elsewhere.

71. –See, e.g., Aziz al-Azmeh, Islams and Modernities (London and New York: Verso, 1993). [End Page 77]

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