Abai — Strauss on the steppe

by Christopher Schwartz on 3/21/2012

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Registan Bloggers Michael Hancock-Parmer and Christopher Schwartz have teamed up to write about Abai Kunanbaiev (or, if you prefer, Abay Kunanbayev). A force of nature in the Republic of Kazakhstan, he was similarly popular in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Born Ibrahim, he took Abai (“careful”) as his takhallus (تخلص), or pen-name. He is most famous for his prose work, Qara sözder (قاراسوزدەر, often mistranslated as Book of Words, instead of Words of Edification). It has been characterized as a philosophy of the Steppe, a ‘Kazakh Philosophy.’ Schwartz believes that there’s more than meets the eye to this text. Meanwhile, Hancock-Parmer argues that Abai, the historical figure, is himself worthy of rethinking.

First, let me say Happy Nawruz to everyone! Second — and perhaps contradictorily — I’m about to be lynched by every liberal reader and lionized by every conservative reader of Registan for breathing the name of Leo Strauss in this hallowed digital space. For those you who have no idea why, to make a long story short, Strauss is both blamed and applauded for providing the intellectual justification for the Bush Administration’s many controversial policies (point and counterpoint). Liberals see in him the professorial mastermind for the worst kinds of contemporary elite realpolicking and “managed democracy”, while conservatives see in him the professorial champion of traditional morality and “values-based democracy”. There is much more than meets the eye about Strauss, however, but only if you give him a chance and really read his work.

The same can be said about Kazakhstan’s Abai Kunanbaev. Mythologized by the Soviets and independent Kazakhstan, he is proclaimed as the model Kazakh and a philosopher par excellence and denounced as a fount of rabid, unsophisticated traditionalism or lamented as the enabler of tradition’s destruction. You won’t find much of the latter criticisms in print or on YouTube, which is dominated by the official discourse; you have to go to the cafes of Almaty and talk with the young urban intelligentsia of today to hear it. The historical Abai is obscured, explains my colleague Michael (who can actually read Abai in the original Chaghatay, much to my envy). As with Strauss, very few people are actually taking the time to really read his work.

In my recent BBC piece (Kyrgyz version; Uzbek version; English forthcoming) I actively play with the Abai of myth as opposed to the Abai of history, in order to get my Central Asian colleagues to think more dynamically about what it means to be a critic. The ideas secretly working behind the scenes in that piece, though, are not those of Abai, but those of Strauss.

Soviet ideologues, particularly (as Michael alerts us) Mukhtar Auezov, being as they were good (if oft-unwitting) disciples of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes and Wissenschaft der Logik, saw in Abai something of the zeitgeist of his era — and although their exegesis was distortive, they nonetheless may not have been off the mark. Abai was educated in both the Muslim madrasah and the Russian skola, and made a living translating Russian and European philosophical and literary works into Kazakh (Chaghatay) and as a newsman with the Russian-Kazakh weekly, Dala Ualaiatynyng Gazeti/Kirgizskaia Stepnaia Gazeti. Michael calls this latter outfit “a flagship in the age of the newspaper as civilizing tool”, an apt and very provocative description that I really love, because the thing is, Abai was full of interesting ambivalences.

Lishnego cheloveka

Abai was a harsh critic of the lishnego cheloveka (“superfluous man”/”dandy”). The criticism was primarily derived from nomadic and generally Islamic notions of manliness:

Fops show off in various ways. One will pay great attention to his face, cultivate his moustache and beard, pamper his body and swagger — now lifting an eyebow langurously, now tapping his fingers or struting with arms akimbo; aother will adopt a studied carelessness in his foppery and, in an off-hand way, affecting to be ‘a simple fellow’, will drop hints in passing about his Arabian horse or his rich raimant: ‘Oh, it’s nothing in particular!’ He goes out of his way to attract the attention o fhis betters, arouses envy amog his equals, and is regarded among his inferiors as the acme of refinement and luxury. They say about him: ‘What has got to complain of with such a horse and clothes like that!’

At the same time, he recognized the phenomenon as having its own nomadic-Islamic analogues:

The one who strays [i.e., off the Straight Path, Sirat al-Mustaqim, الصراط المستقيم] is certain that ahead is the right road and the path is behind him. / For him, what insincere people say is also right. / They are self-satisfied as though they are drowning in riches, / and they don’t far at al unjust deeds. / His short cloak suits him. / He does his belt below the waist and walks carefree. / He tries to cock his white fur hat at a more rakish angle, / and it’s finally worn out. / In summer he never goes without his white cap, / and his stick is white in his hands. / He puts his stick on the wall of the yurt and hangs his cap on it. / He looks at them secretly, admiring them from afar.

In general, the steppe’s lishnego cheloveka was a curious and mixed up creature, trying to combine the lifestyles of Russian modernity and Kazakh tradition in a ghastly superficial way:

Such rogues are numberless among the people, and all of them are not suited to work. They don’t cherish the soul, but are polished on the outside. Tight trousers and short cloaks — that’s all they know. It doesn’t come to their mind to pasture the flocks, to work honestly, get rich and be useful to the people. They roam round the auls driving their only horse till it sweats, not bothering to give the correct greeting, nodding from afar with a vacant, blissful smile.

Grounding these criticisms, however, is an argument for a proper understanding of what it means to maintain tradition while simultaneously modernizing.

“On our steppe there is neither divine nor human justice.”

Abai saw in limited Russification the key to unleashing the best of Islamic spirituality and Kazakh tradition and to resisting Tsarist colonization:

One should learn to read and write Russian. The Russian language is a key to spiritual riches and knowledge, the arts and many other treasures. If we wish to avoid the vices of the Russians while adopting their achievements, we should learn their language and study their scholarship and science, for it was by learning foreign tongues and assimilating world culture that the Russians have become what they are. By studying the language and culture of other nations, a person becomes their equal and will not need to make humble requests. Enlightenment is useful for religion, as well.

To be clear, he was no fool: in one passage he laments how a Russian education alone, revitalizing though it may be, is not sufficient to curtail the decline of morals and unity among his people. He also points out at least twice in the Qara sözder that modernization equally entails an investigation into and adaptation of traditional Kazakh systems of knowledge and jurisprudence.

Careful but enthusiastic Russification and rennovating Kazakh customs was not a rogue argument for the time. The early Islamic modernization movement, embodied by such thinkers as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani or the Jadids in Uzbekistan, was of the view that a rapprochement between Western methodologies and Islamic customs was both possible and preferable (as opposed to today’s either/or argument between “Westernization” versus “Islamification”).

Meanwhile, Abai idealized the Kazakh tribal nobleman (for lack of better description), the bey, turning the position into a kind of moral archetype. This enabled him to forcefully attack the actual beys of his era, who had largely been reduced to Tsarist servitude and victims of avarice both personal and popular in the dog-eat-dog world that he believed had become the nineteenth-century steppe:

The beys live in worry, protecting their wealth. / They buy, knocking off ten percent. / Those whom heavly retribution has hit, / having accepted the ten, hanker after the ninety percent. [...] The strong overcome, the rich win – that’s a well-known truth. / He who has finally failed falls into the net. / Everyone will bring up an evilly growling dog so that in time / they will set it upon the one who’s soul is radiant.

At several points in the Qara sözder, Abai also talks about the corruption and antiquatedness of the Islamic education and judicial system, holding them accountable before the God they are supposed to represent and calling for systematic reforms. The depravity was so bad that even poetry, that supreme performative art of nomadic societies, was eviscerated of its meaning and value:

Poetry is the queen of language, the sovereign of the word. / It takes a wise man to extract it from the strongholds. / Language has free will in it and it warms the heart / with the roundness and perfection of its form. / [...] Ayat [Qur'anic verses] and Qadis [Islamic judges] are the fathers of the word. / Their famous poems sang. / Do not endow the word with powerful strength / unless Allah and the Prophet profit by it. / [...] They picked up the kobyz and dombra [traditional Kazakh instruments] / and sang songs of praise to the unworthy. / They wandered, asking for mercy with their songs, / debasing the word in foreign parts. / They troubled the language for profit, and filled up the soul, / pleading for crumbs sometimes with deception, sometimes with flattery. / Begging in a distant, foreign land, / the cursed ones glorified the riches of their homeland.

Abai himself sums it up in what may be his most poignant line, writing, “On our steppe there is neither divine nor human justice.”

The destroyer of tradition?

As one can imagine, such criticisms, if not done subtly (and Abai is often blunt, at one point calling humanity “sacks of shit”), could be easily manipulated to de-legitimize and dismantle the Kazakh ancien régime — which is exactly what happened in the Soviet period. That Abai would have protested the destruction of his world was cunningly disregarded as “regressive”. If such is the precedence for modernization in Kazakhstan, then it comes as no surprise that Kazakhstani authorities today have been deeply ambivalent about adopting the ways of the West. For the last twenty years, Nazarbayev et al have gone back and forth on implementing democracy and the free market. We could denounce them as unscrupulous and corrupt nomenklatura clinging to power under the guise of cultural relativism, and although that may often be true, it overlooks how Abai’s ghost may haunt them.

Enter: Strauss, who devoted his career to exploring (and criticizing) what he perceived to be the paradox of our era, namely, if the modernized (i.e., liberalized) state is impartial to questions of value, how then does it justify its own value, particularly in the face of intolerant ideologies (in his era, fascism; in our era, fundamentalism). He came to the conclusion that we moderns — particularly those of us in the West but also our compatriots in other regions — are, well, deluding ourselves, foolishly believing that we can neutralize the political space by sanitizing it of values and beliefs that impose certain programs of action upon society as a whole. Previous eras, contends Strauss, were more self-aware and more honest about the role of values and beliefs.

However, I don’t want to focus on this aspect of his thinking just yet. More important is what he had to say about critical intellectuals in general, which he developed while working on, among other thinkers, the Medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Abai’s senior by some eight centuries, who could also be seen as something of an Islamic modernizer vis-à-vis Almohad Spain and the Westernization of his era, namely, Aristotelian science. In his essay, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing” and in his book, Natural Right and History, Strauss outlines the problem faced by philosophers in every era in a particularly useful manner:

Philosophy or science, the highest activity of man, is the attempt to replace opinion about “all things” by knowledge of “all things”; but opinion is the element of society; philosophy or science is therefore the attempt to dissolve the element in which society breathes, and thus it endangers society. Hence philosophy or science must remain the preserve of a small minority, and philosophers or scientists must respect the opinions on which society rests. To respect opinions is something entirely different from accepting them as true…

Philosophizing means to ascend from the cave to the light of the sun, that is, to the truth. The cave is the world of opinion as opposed to knowledge. [...] Any inadequate view of the eternal order [i.e., a partial truth in the form of a more or convention] is , from the point of view of the eternal order, accidental or arbitrary; it owes its validity not to its intrinsic truth but to social fiat or convention.

We may generalize his point: reason (as embodied by the critic, whether literati, philosopher, journalist, or yes, blogger) and context (as embodied by mores and convention, whether religious revelation, culture, law, society) are in a difficult dance with one another. Context provides the very content and structure of reason, from concepts and images to the very language used and style of logical inferences, while reason deconstructs context, thereby enabling it to confront itself and evolve. The problem is context cannot be reasonable, while reason cannot produce context (religious revelation especially so, because of the unique kind of absolute authority it claims for itself, but other varieties of context can be very intransigent and reticent, as well).

It is precisely this difficult dance that we find in Abai. In one of his most breathtaking poems, he describes a traditional Kazakh hunter and eagle chasing down a fox. By the late nineteenth century, this custom was already being seen as “quaint”, “primtive”, “naturalistic”, euphemisms for backwardness and immorality. In his pursuit of modernity, Abai could at times be subject to the same viewpoint, but in this poem he resists, demanding that the transcendent come down to the level of the immanent:

There is no shadow of evil-doing in [the hunter's] soul. / When there is hunting there is prey. / Of all the occupations known to mortal man / it is the only one which brings no harm to anybody. / Isn’t that clear to all who have a meditative mind and a pure heart? / But you cannot grasp it if you look down arrogantly from above. / You cannot imagine the picture unless your eyes are keen, / who listen with attention to every word, / sees everything, and reflects it in his heart. / If ayone reads these words, it should be a hunter, / for nobody can understand them who does not know / the taste of hunting with a hunting bird.

This struggle for balance between the universal and the particular seems to me the key to unlocking the perplexity of Abai, and perhaps understanding why Auezov, for all his faults, was so drawn to him. Indeed, Kazakhstan’s struggle with modernity today may mean that Abai is precisely the mythological figure the Kazahs need — if only they can bear to truly confront him.

Everyone’s a critic

Wither the future of criticism? There may be no way of resolving the problem permanently — if indeed it is a problem, or if we may understand it in a sort of Hegelian manner, as the very nature and engine of history. Strauss was convinced that, whatever the truth, it has become imbalanced today. For Strauss, at least Ibn Rushd understood that he had to couch his criticism of society in such terms as to appear not so radical and negative to the general public as it really was, out of respect for keeping the reason-context balance. At first glance, Abai would appear to be violating that rule, as he spends pages upon pages of the Qara sözder berating his nation. Indeed, the text begins with these memorable lines:

Whether for good or ill, I have lived my life, travelling a long road fraught with struggles and quarrels, disputes and arguments, suffering and anxiety, and reached these advanced years to find myself at the end of my tether, tired of everything. I have realized the vanity and futility of my labors and the meanness of my existence. What shall I occupy myself with now and how shall I live out the rest of my days? I am puzzled that I can find no answer to this question. [...] I have decided at length: henceforth, pen and paper shall be my only solace, and I shall set down my thoughts. Should anyone find something useful here, let him copy it down or memorise it. And if no one has any need of my words, they will remain with me anyway.

Arguably, though, what he’s doing here is in fact maintaining the balance by channelling a well-established Sunni-Sufi literary motif of the world-weary wise old man preaching a revival of spiritual and cultural values, re-employed for the purpose of modernization (with not a little bit of an edge of Pushkin).

At the same time, however, there is still real despair and anger in there — the perennial angst of the critic. Indeed, perhaps Abai had a good reason for devoting the 27th passage of his book to a parable about Socrates explaining humanity’s obligations to God by dint of reason, as the latter was a man who tried to reconcile these dualities, and for his efforts was executed by the Athenian government, essentially for treason.

As for the Abais of today — the literati, philosophers, journalists, and bloggers of Central Asian, both native and not — I would like to say that Strauss is wrong. Yet, it does seem, as the tired expression goes, “everyone’s a critic: mass literacy, mass media (ontologically, in the case of the Internet’s grassroots nature), mass free speech, etc., which has not only blurred the lines on what it means to have an informed opinion, but blurred the lines of what it means to express one, too.

In saying this, I don’t mean to be anti-democratic; to the contrary, perhaps what Strauss sees as a dilemma is actually the growing pains of a new and better world order. At the same time, though, I, like Strauss before me, increasingly wonder whether democracy can in fact survive by unfettered reason alone. Perhaps an important truth is contained in the fact that Ibn Rushd and Abai combined their criticism with public service, Ibn Rushd as a judge and medical doctor, Abai as a newsman. Could today’s knowledge class is increasingly detached from the living realities of everyday people?

I believe that journalists are still struggling to strike the balance, to maintain the connection between reason and context, and indeed, media at its best serves as a way to keep the disciplines and the general public all informed of each other. The problem is that media is less and less at its best.

A personal note

Much of what I’ve written above also arises from my emerging understanding of my faith as a Bahá’í, which teaches that true progress, the kind of advancement that Abai and my colleagues seek, really lies in balancing deconstruction with construction, reason and context, and working on a common project for a common good (I have written about this in terms of “journalism as a sacred dialogue” at length on my personal blog). It’s to try to transform criticism into the best of that other Kazakh institution, the chaikhana, the Habermasian teahouse of conversation and dialogue. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh, our prophet,:

O ye the dawning-places of knowledge! Beware that ye suffer not yourselves to become changed, for as ye change, most men will, likewise, change. This, verily, is an injustice unto yourselves and unto others… Ye are even as a spring. If it be changed, so will the streams that branch out from it be changed. Fear God, and be numbered with the godly. In like manner, if the heart of man be corrupted, his limbs will also be corrupted. And similarly, if the root of a tree be corrupted, its branches, and its offshoots, and its leaves, and its fruits, will be corrupted…

We try this everyday at The Registan and my own network, NewEurasia, but we still haven’t found the right equation.

Abai himself seems to have understood the incredible importance of finding that equation, for he loathed what happens when criticism becomes too detached, too universal, and thus lost in the darkness, rather than the light, of objectivity:

[A]rguments within reason help to strengthen one’s convictions, but, excessive zeal for them can only spoil a man. For lovers of wrangling will launch into disputes not for the sake of ascertaining the truth but rather to show off their knowledge and get the upper hand of other people. Such arguments breed envy, add not a whit of humanity, and do not serve scholarship — on the contrary, they simply confuse people. This is the vain occupation of troublemakers. He who leads hundreds astray from the right path is not worth the little finger of one who has brought just one man back to the path of truth. True, disputation is one of the paths to knowledge, but a person who gives himself entirely to this runs the risk of becoming conceited and arrogant, an envious gossip. Such a person will be not averse to slander, backbiting and vituperation, which only lowers human dignity.

[Note: the English translation of Abai's collected works which I have been quoting so far is by David Aitkyn and the poet-scholar Richard McKane and published in 1995 by the EL Bureau. You can read it @ http://www.abay.nabrk.kz/.]


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This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on Registan.net.

Christopher Schwartz is a graduate student at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He has two MA's in Islamic history and philosophy and is currently in a pre-doctoral program focusing on liberal and democratic theory with a focus on the post-Soviet sphere. He is also the editor-in-chief of neweurasia.net, Central Asia's first and largest citizen-journalism network, and editor of the book CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia, a crowdsourced contemporary history of the region.

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