Islam in American Transcendentalism


As a pioneering philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas has helped mold American culture, has provided substantial direction for American thinking. In each of his essays, he emphasizes distinct ways that people can interpret their surroundings and act accordingly. In his “Over-Soul”, Emerson speaks of the potential, metaphysical unity of people through a spiritual sublimity that comes from within them. In his “Nature”, he transcends the common romanticism that popular culture has projected onto nature (the realm beyond human influence) and introduces a more sobering experience one can have in nature requiring an awareness that penetrates the sensual. The origin of this advice has remained dormant, hidden in the fog of American history. To the surprise and probably the dismay of many Americans, “Islamic principles echo in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson…[he was] influenced by the Quran” (Ahmed 8). The Muslim presence in America’s history is far more profound than many can or want to imagine, especially in light of the mounting Islamophobia. Many Americans today are completely unaware of the fact that “the Founding Fathers acknowledged Islam with cordiality” (Ahmed 8). This initial acknowledgement introduced Muslim culture into American life. Analyzing certain pivotal tenants in the Quran, we can see how they are infused into Emerson’s essays. Most prominent in the middle 19th century, Emerson was apart of this American tradition, perhaps oblivious to the impact of the Muslim presence in America while expressing ideas that had root in an Islamic context. Today’s stigmatization of Islam seems erroneous in light of the American philosopher’s inspiration from it and his impact on the future.

The years leading up to the middle of the 19th century when Emerson produced some of his most poignant works, indeed most early Americans perceived Muslims or Turks (as they would call them) as completely alien, really disconnected from American culture; however the inevitable flow of knowledge brought Muslim culture into American discourse dating back to the days of the Declaration of Independence. Paying tribute to the ideals of young America, embracing diversity, “the Founding Fathers embraced even Islam, which surely at that time would have been considered exotic” (Ahmed 59). The first administration openly proclaimed its multi-religious acceptance. The Treaty of Tripoli between The United States and Libya manifested and realized their desired amity with this Muslim nation. Article 11 of the Treaty states that the United States government was “not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion [and it] has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen” (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/treaty_tripoli.html). The premier leaders of Libya and Algeria, Joel Barlow, the American “Agent plenipotentiary” in Tripoli, and President John Adams signed this document into action in 1797. This peace between the two nations maintained for some time a mutual respect. “The Prophet Muhammad was praised by the Founding Fathers”, in their acceptance of the Muslim people and way of life (Ahmed 59).

Any reference to the Muslim world by American leaders at the time had with it a clear reverence. The Prophet Muhammad was seen as an intellectually and morally relevant historical figure. John Adams “called him one of the world’s ‘sober inquirers after truth’ alongside such figures as Confucius and Socrates, and [Benjamin] Franklin cited the Prophet as a model of compassion” (Ahmed 59). Franklin saw Muslim people and leaders as vanguards of justice, worthy of admiration and respect long before the Treaty of Tripoli. In response to the brutal violence settlers were inflicting upon the Native Americans, Benjamin Franklin, in 1764, wrote an essay entitled “Christian White Savages”. In this work he confronted the common frontiersman for his abuse on the indigenous peoples, scolding them for their defiance from “the God of Peace and Love” (Ahmed 63). His letter went on to imply that “had the Indians been living in a Muslim country…they would have been treated justly and would have been safer.” Franklin resolves his rant with: “…what was honourable in Moors, may not be a Rule to us; for we are Christians!” This approval and praise of the Muslim world and its customs from this American icon among others spilled over into other realms of American society preceding and succeeding Emerson. For example, in Mark Twain’s 1894 Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer conjures up a scheme to launch a crusade against the Muslims in order to reclaim the Holy Land. But both Huck and Jim agree that “Muslims are just like anyone else, and if the three [Tom, Huck and Jim] were hungry, the Muslims would be hospitable” (Twain). In general there existed in the United States a popular notion that Muslims and their way of life represented an ethical ideal. And partly from this notion, Ralph Waldo Emerson emerged and flourished philosophically with the Quran as his muse.

Much of the supernatural aspects of Emerson’s essays come from the Quran. This American transcendentalist “found the Prophet of Islam an inspiring figure” (Ahmed 71). So, in his inspiration, he wanted to bridge the gap between the Muslim interpretation of the world around us and the way the average American experiences life in an expanding United States; he, too, wanted to inspire. In his “Over-Soul” written in 1841, he ambitiously attempts to bring his readers to the understanding of the Soul, the driving force behind the human will. He wants his readers to discover that which exists beyond the immediate human experience, the origin of events. He explains how he is “constrained every moment to acknowledge a high origin for events than the will I call mine” (Emerson 133). He goes on to claim that the soul is “the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being” (Emerson 134). According to Emerson, the soul is “a temple wherein all wisdom and all good abide.” This soul in man, which communicates with truth, has the potential to connect to the Over Soul. “The individual soul always mingles with the universal soul” (Emerson 140). He means that, through the faculty of our souls, we can join the all encompassing. It is the same image as “the water of the globe [being] all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one” (Emerson 147). Man’s attempt to find common rhythm with the rest of mankind and nature (in essence, God) is his attempt to get in touch with the Over Soul. When we turn to Islamic texts we see the source of Emerson’s philosophy.

Muslims believe that the Quran was a revelation to Muhammad from God through the angel Gabriel. This text is divided into a series of verses grouped in surahs or chapters expressing a certain wisdom. There is one surah called Al-Mumenoon which translates to The Believers. In it, readers are told, “ Successful indeed are…those…who keep aloof from what is vain” (Quran 23:3). Involvement in that which is vain diverts humans from tapping into the universal, the all encompassing that far surpasses individual experience and earthly burdens. Those who avoid vanity are successful in the context of Islam because avoiding vanity implies transcending the sensual. The reasons for such behavior is explained in the Sunnah, an Islamic text supplementary to the Quran outlining the Muslim way of life in light of the revelation that was the Quran.

The successful ones who engage in collective observance of the universal, the supernatural, engage through prayer or the communication with God: “the Eternal, the Absolute, the Disposer of Affairs…the Source of Peace, the Originator, the Fashioner” (Quran 23:92, 59:22-24). This entity “is above time and space”. The souls that recognize this and respect it will have “enlightenment as to its wrong and its right” (Quran 91:8). With the souls’ development, God or the Over Soul “soon will show them Signs on the horizon, within their own nafs [or souls], until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth” (Quran 41:53). With all this in mind, Muslims should “come with calmness and pray with the people” (Sunnah 11:609). Muslims are required at least once in their lives to perform the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca to demonstrate as well as celebrate their unity with fellow Muslims and to gesture their submission to and acknowledgement of God. Muslims fulfill their obligation by circling the holy Ka’ba. In the Sunnah, the narrator Bara ‘bin ‘Azib recites a story around this obligation, bringing to light where Emerson pulled his ideas of a collective transcendent experience for some communication with the “higher origin of will” through the faculty of our souls. Without the veil of 19th century modern secular philosophy, we see the parallels in this Islamic text. The narrator believes that Allah will “guide whom He will to a straight path” towards enlightenment. The only people Allah can guide are those who develop their souls to live for the sake of that which lies beyond the sensual world. This is a collective exercise in Mecca when circling the Ka’ba. The narrator recounts how “all the people turned their faces towards the Ka’ba.”. “The prayer in congregation is twenty five times superior to the prayer offered by a person alone” because when “everyone of us used to put his shoulder with the shoulder of his companion and his foot with the foot of his companion”, the congregation would be performing the “perfect and correct prayer” (Sunnah: Book 11: 618, 692, 690). The unity of souls on a spiritual, metaphysical level is necessary for tapping into the Over-Soul or the “common nature, the eternal ONE, the soul of the whole and the universal beauty” as Emerson described it (Emerson 134). The image of the world’s oceans as one colossal tide re-emerges.

Contacting this Over-Soul requires the penetrating perception of Nature. In Nature, written in 1844, Emerson wants his readers to move past the immediate beauty that nature provides for the human senses in order to experience the origin of that which is natural in our universe. He characterizes man’s common pitfall in nature through an example of “the child with sweet pranks, the fool of his senses, commanded by every sight and sound, without any power to compare and rank his sensations…individualizing everything, generalizing nothing” (Emerson 86).  First of all, “nature is loved by what’s best in us”: our souls (Emerson 82). Through the development and faculty of our souls, we can come to bear holistic witness of nature, under the auspice of the Over Soul. In experiencing nature in its all-encompassing, all-connecting form, we must acknowledge the grandeur of it all. Nature is more than bush and animals in an environment. Nature “arms and equips an animal to find its place and living in the earth, and, at the same time, she arms and equips another animal to destroy it” (Emerson 84). There is a grand scheme invisible to man’s senses that he can notice only through a progressive self-conditioning aiming towards “[carrying] the world in his head” (Emerson 85). With this attribute, man recognizes “laws which bind the farthest regions of nature: moon, plant, gas, crystal, concrete geometry and numbers.” This caliber of perception brings to light a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of nature. The conviction to experience the surrounding world in this manner has Islamic undertones.

Connecting the seemingly isolated elements of our universe is a feature in the Quran, ergo a profound characteristic of Islam. In the religious context, the nature around us is a direct manifestation of God within the framework of how Muslims believe the world is composed. Similarly in Emerson’s case, nature, still related to God, has an independent status as “the most ancient religion”, as an entity nearly pre-existing human spirituality and the acknowledgement of a supernatural force. Emerson’s demonstration of nature runs, for the most part, parallel to the explanations in the Quran of the nature of nature. In a religious and anti-Romantic tone, Emerson preaches that nature is “medicinal, [it] sobers and heals us” (Emerson 79). The Quran’s many verses work to sober or sustain within the reader an understanding of the world around him or her. Surah 16, verse 68 explains how “thy Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in the hills, on trees, and in men’s habitations.” The Islamic depiction of survivalist adaptation in the natural world mirrors Emerson’s pre-Darwinian portrayal of the environmental system, how it “arms and equips an animal to find its place and living in the earth”. Both Allah and Nature are puppeteers of the Natural System according to the Quran and Emerson’s transcendentalist doctrine. Both Allah and Nature arrange every single physical thing into a certain course and set it in connection with other physical things. They are the spinners of the web that is our universe where all entities share a plane of existence. In Surah 67 verse 3, readers are asked to do the impossible task to “look again [at God’s world], can you see any disorder?” The intricate organization of things in nature and their interconnectedness are due to the conviction that God “produced therein all kinds of things in due balance” (Quran 15:19). The Natural System is composed “without any pillars that ye can see” (Quran 13:2). Discourse as such courses all throughout Emerson’s references to the natural world outside of the city untainted by illusory social constructs. Once again we see the Muslim presence Emersonian thought.

Emerson’s ideas on Nature and the Over-Soul are not in the least bit mutually exclusive. To truly experience and understand the complexity of Nature, one must tap into the Over-Soul, one must gain an altered perception enabling one to surpass sensual stimulation and the individualization of entities in the world. The special relationship between man and his environment that Emerson introduces in these two essays can be found in the primary Islamic texts. Emerson’s integration of Muslim principles into his transcendental expressionism sheds light on the initial fascination that some American intelligentsia once had on these foreign people from the east, demonstrated by receptiveness, research and cultural inclusion. The Over Soul and Nature, as a whole, explore the frontier of people’s ability to detach themselves from the illusion that we call reality, the façade composed of social constructs. Our disconnection from our immediate lives will bring us to the realization that “earth is a greater matter than the creation of man” and that it is up to us to unclothe Nature, to rid it of its most common misconception that it is only beautiful sight with fragrant smells and melodic sounds (Quran 40:57).

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