European Chauvinism— A Precursor to Colonialism
Kant and Hegel on Islam and the Orient
Points of Consideration
While colonization’s physical manifestations oppress people in a manner hard to ignore, the subjugation of the colonized individual’s mind seems to slip under the radar. While the latter is a consequence of the former, it seems that a very fatalistic view of the world coupled with intellectual defeatism has allowed for many to be numb and indifferent to how their language, ideas, and beliefs are constantly policed by the hegemon. Until the colonized subject understands the severity of the hegemon’s far-reaching influence, they will continue to be deprived of the liberation they desire. Without carrying out the necessary exercise of decoloniality, the colonized subject will remain intellectually shackled. It is for this very reason that colonized subjects need to better understand the political and social systems in which they are subsumed. For the aforementioned reasons, the colonized ought to develop and synthesize analytical frameworks to counteract the very invective nature of the hegemon and its ideas. This does not preclude analytical tools that originate from the very people that desire to oppress the colonized. This can be seen in how Fanon utilized a Hegelian framework in his understanding of race while being committed to decoloniality.
As Muslims, ideological purity in the realm of creed is non-negotiable. However, even the most despicable individuals in history have provided insights that can be borrowed from and weaponized to build different analytical tools that allow us to better understand our world and fight the many things that continue to plague us from capitalism to liberalism.
I am not advocating for anything outlandish or new. The very practice of borrowing analytical frameworks has precedent in Islam’s discursive tradition. This can be seen in how Muslims in the classical era adopted Aristotelian logic in jurisprudence due to its efficacy while being cautious of the very unorthodox nature of Plato and Aristotle’s views. Muslims of the past were able to separate the two and so can we. For example, one can benefit from a Marxist critique of capitalism without adopting Marx’s metaphysical commitments — it is not an all-or-nothing exercise. The same goes for critical theory and other analytical frameworks.
Many are easily enamored by Western thought and are quite unaware of (or simply downplay) the racism and bigotry embedded within Western thought. The genre of classics in the Western academy is rife with racism that has often been swept under the rug. Nonetheless, I do not want to fall into the trap of dismissing what these thinkers may have to offer. Behind the layers of bigotry are analytical frameworks and tools worth seriously engaging, whether it be for the purpose of refutation, refinement, or better understanding our place in history and how things became the way they are. As tempting as intellectual laziness may be, it is of no benefit if we truly want to liberate ourselves from the very systems that continue to oppress us. We need to better understand those systems better than the very shapers and benefactors of those systems. These are things to keep in mind as you read the piece and are reminded (if you were not aware) of how bigoted they were.
In this piece, I explore how the very Eurocentric ideas promoted by the likes of Kant and Hegel and other German philosophers were not only dehumanizing but part and parcel of a very European understanding of the Other. This very Otherization and European cultural chauvinism are what I believe gave the justification for European colonization of the global South. I focus on the views of two infamous German thinkers: Kant and Hegel. I specifically focus on their views towards Islam and the Orient. Despite the plethora of differences between Kant and Hegel on issues of metaphysics and philosophy, they both have one thing in common: European religio-cultural chauvinism. The type of chauvinism and arrogance left unchecked as it was, led to the expected outcome of usurpation, oppression, and killing of the Other, who in the eyes of not just Kant and Hegel, but also the colonial masters are rendered as lowly as animals.
In Kant’s On A Newly Raised Noble Tone in Philosophy, Kant says that “The Arab, or Mongol, nurtures contempt for the town-dweller, and deems himself noble in comparison with him, as wandering about in the desert with one’s horses and sheep is more entertainment than work.”¹ What Kant hints at is quite clear — the Arab and the Mongol are primitive creatures that have a disdain for any sense of advancement. Kant pits the nomadic Arab archetype against the persona of the sophisticated town-dweller. Kant also goes into how the mystagogical nature of certain eastern beliefs led to the death of philosophy.² This is his attempt to delineate clearly what is and is not philosophy: to preserve the boundaries of philosophy from the danger of enthusiasm. These boundaries that Kant is interested in preserving are to keep the “whimsical fancies” of the Orientals away.³ If it is not obvious, this boundary is what divides the European from the non-European, philosophy from fantasy respectively. Kant was attempting to preserve a European “rational sovereignty” to protect it from the “nomadic, wandering, carefree thought-train.”⁴ Kant seemed to have embodied a type of Lutheran anxiety to Arabs who are not interested in a “settled mode of living.”⁵
Later on in his career, Kant seems to have reduced Islam to a fantasy in his Physical Geography and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Unsurprisingly, he pigeonholes himself into picking one of the two narratives on Islam readily available during the enlightenment: madness and derangement or manipulation and deception.⁶ He seems to have picked the latter; Islam is a plague that if let loose will allow for people’s rational understandings of things to “fall prey to the phantasm of Schwärmerei.”⁷
In his Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime, Kant goes into how the inhabitant of the Orient has no sense of the morally beautiful. He seems to take issue with the perpetual motion of the Oriental which results from their unrestrained inclination to the sensual.⁸ Kant mistakenly believes that Islam allows for the usage of opium, concluding that the usage of opium is a practice of central importance.⁹ He is critical of how Islam bans wine while permitting opium. In his Anthropologie, Kant seems to suggest Turk’s get their courage from opium-induced madness. He once again puts emphasis on the critical of the “Mohammedan’s slavish devotion to the sensual.”¹⁰ Kant also seemed to have a strong disdain for the Islamic description of heaven which is described as a place of endless sexual enjoyment. He is not fond of the “blasphemous transplanting of the sexual into the realm of the spiritual.”¹¹ This could be a mere projection of a sex-negative outlook on life found in Christianity onto Islam.¹²
To Kant, Islam “is the triumph of revelation over reason, of sublimity over accountability, of psychology over theology, of imagination over morality.”¹³ He goes on to continue that reason has had to give ground to the “monsters” of Mohammed’s imagination.¹⁴ To him, the Schwärmerei which stems from Islam is “the death of all philosophy, ungrounded, non-rational, unchecked revelation is the death of all (true) religion.”¹⁵ These nuance-lacking observations on Islam are merely a fraction of the plethora of reductive takes by Kant.
As mentioned earlier, there was a particular attempt by Kant on keeping the non-European out of Europe; to push and keep the Oriental on the other side of the Grenze (border), “into the nomadic hinterlands of the sense-driven, irrational and ultimately insignificant.”¹⁶ This an active attempt to dictate who gets to belong to the conversation i.e., what is deemed as philosophy. In his anthropological works such as Physical Geography, one sees a confusing tone within Kant. He praises the Tartars calling them hospitable and charitable only to then proceed to say they are prone to laziness, with stinginess being their “foremost vice.”¹⁷ These traits are put up against the European traits of “empire-building, consciousness-cultivating, modern European.”¹⁸
In his On Fanaticism and the Means Against It, Kant suggests that the one & only appropriate way to respond to the spread of mystagogical nature of beliefs present in Mohammedanism is “contemptuous silence” (verachtendes Stillschweigen).¹⁹ Any reference to Islam by Kant is for the sole purpose of drawing the following caricature of the Mohammedan Oriental: “fierce, sensual, fanatical, monstrous.”²⁰ It seems Kant struggled to find anything serious to credit the entirety of Islamic civilization with — outright dismissal was preferred over condemnation. It is the method of “non-representation, not misrepresentation” that can accurately sum up the Kantian method when it comes to engaging with the “Asiatic” dangers that come with Islam. Once again, we see Kant’s infatuation of separating Europe from the Orient, as evident in his strategic choice not to make mention of Turkey in his works. This all seems to be in the name of protecting reason from the peril of unfettered Schwärmerei present in Islam and other features of the Orient. All this to keep to the boundaries of Europe (synonymous with ordered philosophy) away from the irrational, mystical nature of the Other.²¹
On the issue of colonialism, Kant clearly has a notion of a hierarchy of races. He believes that non-white races are predisposed to assume subservient and dependent roles which can be seen in how he describes Africans: “the race of Negroes … [is] full of affect and passion, very lively, chatty and vain. It can be educated, but only to the education of servants, ie, they can be trained.”²² While Kant is critical of different elements of colonialism, he held this notion that the “philosophy of right rests on our fundamental duty to enter into a civil state and sustain it, once such a civil state has been established, no matter how it came about and how imperfect its current state might be.”²³ This allows those enamored by Kant and his ideas to turn a blind eye to the imperialist nature of such thinking. Once a demographic has been colonized, they should forgo any notions of resistance because that would disrupt the higher goal of having a just civil constitution. Fanon acknowledges that even those who reject racist understandings of the Other cannot simply rid themselves of its influence on their thoughts and behavior.²⁴ This can be seen in how those who are supposedly against racism can simultaneously give a pass to European colonialism without acknowledging the inseparable link between the two. The varying literature on Kant’s views regarding colonialism specifically makes it difficult to draw a strong conclusion on exactly what his views were. Nonetheless, to deem Kant as someone anti-colonial would be laughable given what he has said about non-Europeans throughout his writings.
Hegel seems to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Kant. The world historian manages to allow continents as large as Africa and faiths as dominant as Islam to “disappear” from his works.²⁵ It is quite evident that imbued within Hegel’s writing are themes of empire which seem to be the “tacit metaphysical justification for European colonialism.”²⁶ This exclusion of the non-European common in Hegel seems to be a key element of his works. Hegel’s “critical gaze” ceases to function when it comes to employing any nuance towards the Muslim world.²⁷
While Hegel claimed to be committed to steering clear of historical projection as he proudly proclaimed in his Lectures of the Philosophy of History, “We have to take history as it is” and “our task is proceed historically, empirically,” his commitment is nowhere to be found when it comes to the Muslim world as seen in his conclusion that Arabs and Turks are “uneducated peoples” who “have shown themselves to be incapable of culture.”²⁸ Such form of invective thinking heads in either one of the two directions: the entirety of Arab and Turkish people throughout time can be reduced to “people incapable of culture,” or perhaps there was something more nefarious at play in Hegel’s works. Surely some Arabs and Turks are uneducated peoples, but all? Can this not be said about any other demographic?
It is quite evident that Hegel was an incompetent historian who made unsubstantiated universal claims. Perhaps his “historical” method was lacking and needed serious refinement to avoid the arrival at such ludicrous claims. Philosophy may have been his forte — the same cannot be said about his historical and anthropological outlooks on life. Professor Fredereick Beiser seems to be of the view that such reductionism present in Hegel towards non-Europeans is an “unfortunate lapse of an otherwise commendable thinker.”²⁹ This can only be viewed as an understatement if one is to seriously consider the ramifications of such pernicious thinking. It is no surprise that a demographic that idolizes men that casually employ “Turk” and “Barbarian” synonymously are the very demographic responsible for much of the colonial subjugation throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.³⁰
Just as his predecessor Kant, Hegel also ensures that no significant attribution is made for works of art, culture, or science by Muslims in his works. This could be attributed to Hegel’s reading of Gibbon at a young age.³¹ It is the Englishmen who deemed the Ottoman empire as the “growth of a monster.”³² However, Gibbon seems to have still gone into some detail resulting in rare but nonetheless existing praise of the “barbarians,” a level of attention to detail missing in the writings of Hegel. It seems Hegel’s empirical method struggled to find even the slightest of praise for the millions of barbarians outside of Europe’s rational boundaries. Instead, Hegel’s earth-shattering historiography is fixated on important things such as the apparent fixation Ottoman princes had for Christian maidens they fell in love with and infatuated over, only to kill them.³³ Once again, the barbarian’s sex-hungry irrational side is emphasized since that is all the Oriental can be reduced to, unlike the enlightened rational white European.
If the reductive takes cited previously are not enough, Hegel claims in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History that “the Muslim, is not like the European, who has a variety of viewpoints. If the European is a convolution of diverse relationships, the Muslim is one whole and only this one.”³⁴ If the bar to enter the field of historiography is that low, we ought to allow the likes of Alex Jones into the ranks of historians. At least his takes although idiotic are entertaining. In the Spirit of Christianity, Hegel goes into how the Arab individual belongs to the whole i.e., the state, whereas the European represents himself, not the state he belongs to. Here we see Hegel stripping the Arab Oriental of their own individuality. Of course, it is the white man and his analytical gaze that determines how the archetypical Arab historically expressed himself. It is mind-boggling how arrogant one had to be in order to make such sweeping claims without having even left Europe. It seems that the Prussian Academy entertained such frivolous historiographic works with Kant, so why should Hegel be the exception to the very clear status quo? It is very clear that all it took for serious anthropological works in the academy during the enlightenment was second-hand accounts. A German historiographer could dare to write a universal history without having even left the confines of Prussia, let alone Europe.
Hegel also seems to have an issue with how the baggy trousers of the Turks are not suitable to the “lively and busy lifestyle” of the enlightened and cultured European. Just like his predecessor Kant, Hegel was constantly agitated by the idea that of even the slightest blur between the rational and geographical boundaries of Europe and Turkey. This attempt by Hegel and Kant to dictate “the boundaries of Europe as a place of Reason, Reflection, and Freedom” leads one back to a recurring theme.³⁵ Philosophy can only be European and as such the Other, who is not as philosophically equipped needs to be enlightened — enlightenment that came in the form of colonialism and cultural genocide.
While it is best to avoid reducing Hegel to a tool of the Prussian status quo, Hegel’s writings cannot be looked at devoid of his socio-economic status. Hegel was a professor who came from a family of pastors and administrators; he married into an aristocratic family.³⁶ It is no surprise that he found many aspects of Islam to be proletarian. After all, Islam is vehemently opposed to class structures. Such intrinsic features of Islam would rock the boat of the status quo where the barrier to entry is a mere proclamation of faith, unconcerned with one’s class or economic status. Islam lacks the rational and racial boundaries that Hegel benefitted from.
Hegel was no fan of the theology of oneness of God found in Islam, which put everyone on the same playing field. To Hegel, it stripped people of their differences i.e, die Zerstörung aller Unterschiede (the destruction of all differences).³⁷ Such a proletarian model is antithetical to the very class structure that Hegel seems to have benefitted from. It goes against notions of caste hierarchy, birthrights, political limitations used to control people, and as such Islam was anarchic.³⁸ It allowed for an ease of entry into society. Muslim society allowed for the slave to become king overnight, as was the case of the Mamluks and Ottomans — something unfathomable to this day. As mentioned earlier, such features of Islam would make anyone who reaps benefits of the upper class uneasy. Hegel’s intentional removal of Islam in his history was done because it challenged his theory of progress — to him, historical progress necessitated social differences. This challenged his concept of the dialectical which relied on a gradient — a slave and a master dichotomy. Hegel was of the view that Black and Indigenous peoples have a “dormant dialectic — they are stuck in nature and can only be liberated through colonization.³⁹ Colonialism functioned as a Hegelian dialectic: the suffering of the Orient at the hands of the European. As such, in order for humanity to progress, Black, Brown, and Asian bodies had to suffer for the luxury comfort of those on the other side of the Grenze.⁴⁰
Hegel divided the race into three categories: (1) The Ethiopian/African race (2) Mongol which included Indian and Chinese (3) Caucasian.⁴¹ When it came to Africans, Hegel reduced them to “grown-up children.”⁴² As for the Mongols, they were merely understood to be childish. To Hegel, real history started with the Caucasian race which included Muslims, Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Hegel claimed that “color has no superiority,” only to proceed to claim the objective superiority of the Caucasian against the Negro.⁴³ It is not hard to deduce exactly on what grounds he makes such a bigoted claim. Hegel also claimed that
“the finest color is that in which what is internal is most visible, the color which is determined outwards, in an animal manner, from within. . . . In what is flesh colored . . . spirituality [is] so much the more recognizable. It is this condition, that of what is internal, of animal being and spiritual inwardness making itself more visible, which constitutes the objective superiority of the whiteness of the skin.”⁴⁴
Hegel understood that in the metaphysical sense the darker someone was, the more incomplete they were. Hegel also said that “there is no slavery in the state that is rational; slavery is found only where spirit has not yet attained this point.”⁴⁵ Hence, his justification for why Africans deserve to be enslaved until they reach a point of enlightenment through perpetual subjugation by the white European. How can anyone expect a Hegelian conception of history to be empirical after reading such repulsive and biased words? Why is anyone who calls out the blatant racism and colorism present in Hegel and other enlightenment philosophers deemed a revisionist obsessed with back-projecting modern notions of reality? It is baffling to see people use the smokescreen of nuance to downplay such racism and xenophobia. It is no surprise that such a downplaying of Europeanness and whiteness allows for one to eventually nuance away colonialism and the suffering it brought along with it.
Although Hegel’s conceptions of race seem simplistic and reductive, they are somewhat convoluted. It is odd how the Turks, whom to Hegel like the Mongols are originally central Asian, are deemed Caucasian simply for being Muslim: his own conception of race is fraught with inconsistencies. Is Islam a religion or a race? Are all Muslims Caucasian? In his writings, Hegel pins the Caucasized Muslims against the “lower” ethnic group of the Africans. When describing the African, he says “there is nothing in his character which sounds human. The extensive reports of missionaries confirm this perfectly, and Mohammedanism appears to be the only thing which has brought them some degree of education [Bildung].”⁴⁶ Hegel does not shy away from his views, no matter how xenophobic. After all, his entire method is entirely “empirical” and he is merely performing his task as a historian.
Here we see Hegel’s views once again in a contradictory light. Islam which was once a “monstrous conquest” is now at the forefront of spreading culture.⁴⁷ This is not necessarily because he thinks Islam has something special to offer. It has more to do with the fact that Islam was paving “the way for Christian missionaries, but which is providing a superior (Caucasian) religious culture, monotheistic and transcendental, which the fetishistic negro has yet to acquire.”⁴⁸ Hegel’s historical revisionism manifests itself in such a way that anything he writes serves the ultimate purpose of putting the European on top, even if that entails going against his very understanding of Islam as an annihilator of culture as evident here: “Hegel’s triadic understanding of race (African/Mongol/Caucasian) appears to have diminished Islam’s competitive Otherness in certain moments.”⁴⁹ Here Hegel reminds us that history can be tweaked when necessary.
When looking at the aggregate of what both Kant and Hegel said throughout their careers, it is no stretch to say that such narratives led from Otherization to colonialism. They both were quick to not only stereotype the Oriental but to dehumanize them in all sorts of ways. The Oriental was an irrational barbarian that needed to be civilized. Kant was very keen on keeping Europe’s rational and geographic boundaries delineated from that of the Orient: his goal was to keep the Oriental on the other side of the Grenze. Hegel’s understanding of the history of progress seems to have necessitated a slave-master dialectic. It is not hard to imagine who played the role of whom during the colonial era. All this evidence forces me to believe that European chauvinism was not only a precursor but the main driver for colonialism.
- Ian Almond, History of Islam in German Thought (New York: Routledge, 2010), 31.
- Almond, History of Islam in German Thought, 32.
- Ibid, 32.
- Ibid, 33.
- Ibid. Schwärmerei is German for fanaticism.
- Ibid, 35.
- Ibid. Qur’an 5:90 clear bans intoxicants. It is not clear how he arrives at such a false conclusion.
- Ibid, 36.
- Projection of the European’s experiences onto the Other seems to be a recurring theme in European literature.
- Almond, History of Islam in German Thought, 36.
- Ibid, 36.
- Ibid, 45.
- Ibid, 46.
- Ibid, 51.
- Ibid, 52.
- Bryan W. Van Norden, “Why the Western Philosophical Canon is Xenophobic and Racist,” Aeon, last modified October 31, 2017, https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist.
- Thomas Khurana, review of Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives, by Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, May 8, 2021. https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/kant-and-colonialism-historical-and-critical-perspectives/.
- Jonathan Weber, “What Existentialist Philosophy Reveals About Prejudices,” Aeon, last modified January 29, 2019, https://aeon.co/essays/what-existentialist-philosophy-reveals-about-prejudices.
- Almond, History of Islam in German Thought, 109.
- Ibid, 110. It would not be a stretch to extend this lack of nuance of his to the rest of the Orient. His writing seems to suggest as such.
- Ibid, 112.
- Ibid, 113.
- Ibid, 117.
- Ibid, 119.
- Ibid, 120.
- Ibid, 122.
- Avram Alpert, “Racism is Baked Into the Structure of the Dialectical Philosophy,” Aeon, last modified September 24, 2020, https://aeon.co/essays/racism-is-baked-into-the-structure-of-dialectical-philosophy.
- This form of rhetoric still exists. Colonialism has merely taken a different form.
- Almond, History of Islam in German Thought, 130.
- Ibid, 130–131.
- Rei Terada, “Hegel’s Racism for Radicals,” Radical Philosophy, last modified Autumn 2019, https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/hegels-racism-for-radicals.
- Almond, History of Islam in German Thought, 131.
- Ibid, 132.
Almond, Ian. History of Islam in German Thought: From Leibniz to Nietzsche. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Alpert, Avram. “Racism is Baked Into the Structure of the Dialectical Philosophy.” Aeon, September 24, 2020. https://aeon.co/essays/racism-is-baked-into-the-structure-of-dialectical-philosophy.
Khurana, Thomas. Review of Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives by Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, May 8, 2021. https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/kant-and-colonialism-historical-and-critical-perspectives/.
Nordern, Bryan W. Van. “Why the Western Philosophical Canon is Xenophobic and Racist.” Aeon, October 31, 2017. https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist.
Terada, Rei. “Hegel’s Racism for Radicals.” Radical Philosophy, Autumn 2019. https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/hegels-racism-for-radicals.
Weber, Jonathan. “What Existentialist Philosophy Reveals About Prejudices.” Aeon, January 29, 2019. https://aeon.co/essays/what-existentialist-philosophy-reveals-about-prejudices.