Friday, March 13, 2015

Sobriety and Power: A Paradox

In my book on Islamic finance, I have highlighted the similarity [identified by classical scholars] between the three stages of prohibition of wine (khamr) and gambling (maysir), on the one hand, and trading in credit (riba), on the other. These are all forms of addiction, I argued, that lead to dynamic inconsistency: resolving to act in one way but proceeding to act in another, less favorable, way. The first two were forbidden completely, I argued, because they are not necessary for human life, whereas the last was regulated heavily through scripture and jurisprudence, because credit is necessary for human economies, but quite dangerous when left unchecked, leading to crisis after crisis. [Contemporary jurisprudence has failed to modernize the regulatory substance of the Law, but that is another issue on which I've written often here.]

The most addictive drug, it seems, is power. I have confessed to multiple colleagues and bosses that I have never truly understood what attracts people to power. The Nietzschean "will to power" never seemed to be a convincing normative (i.e. ethical) analysis of the human condition (although it may very well be a good positive, i.e. empirical, one). After all, why would anyone have ambition or strive to gain or hold power unless they want to use it for some other good? If anyone truly craved power for its own sake, wouldn't they see how illusory and fleeting it is? Even if they started out trying to do good only to rationalize their craving for power, I reasoned, wouldn't they ultimately recognize that only the good they do for others is lasting, while the power itself is temporary and illusory?

This would be a corollary of the Hadith on property or wealth:
لَيْسَ لَكَ مِنْ مَالِكَ إِلا مَا أَكَلْتَ فَأَفْنَيْتَ أَوْ لَبِسْتَ فَأَبْلَيْتَ
[O, son of Adam, your property is merely what you annihilate in consumption or wear out in clothing.]

The survival, usefulness, and reality of wealth and power can only be measured in terms of those whom we help. But both wealth and power are dangerously addictive substances: They consume their holders, even as they nourish others. This is clearly the main metaphor meant by the effect of the ring in Lord of the Rings, which drives its holder insane. Only the humble Frodo could be trusted with it, and even he was weakened dangerously by its temptations.

The Sufis have a famous saying: حب الظهور يكسر الظهور
There are many puns in this saying. Its most apparent meaning is that "love of fame is ruinous." Some have also interpreted the last part "breaks backs" to mean bowing down; meaning that love of appearance requires inappropriate compromise and subservience. Perhaps, it was for this reason that Lao Tzu advised (and I paraphrase): "When the work is being done, [the repentant man must] retreat into obscurity." This is also what Ibn `Ata'illah said in his 11th aphorism:
ادفن وجودك في أرض الخمول فما نبت مما لم يدفن لا يتم نتاجه
[Bury your existence in the soil of obscurity; for any seed that is not buried will never grow completely into a useful plant.]

The sad paradox is this: Isn't it still selfish, then, to withdraw into obscurity (to protect oneself)? Can we be drunk with sobriety? Is renunciation of power a false claim of self control, which is another form of fleeting and illusory power?