Reading Melville in Post-9/11 America | The Nation


Reading Melville in Post-9/11 America

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Hale Woodruff’s mural Mutiny on the Amistad (1939), courtesy of Talladega College, Alabama.

It was, of course, the political scientist Samuel Huntington who popularized the phrase “clash of civilizations” in an eponymous 1993 essay, the influence of which has far outlived its insight. It didn’t take great vision to predict that radical Islam, after having been supported by Washington to counter the Soviet Union, would escape US control once the Cold War was over. Huntington’s real contribution was to provide a pseudo-historical analysis to explain the blowback: “Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations,” he wrote, “has been going on for 1,300 years,” and those “fault lines” will be the “battle lines of the future.”

There are many strains of contemporary Islamophobia. But one common thread insists that Muslims have no true concept of personal freedom. Christianity, the argument goes, contained within itself the seeds of a rational, emancipating individualism, which gave birth to classical political liberalism. Islam, by contrast, is said to be a servile creed: the religion needs a reformation, but reformation is impossible since its insistence on the submission of one’s self to the divine is, at its core, at odds with the pluralism of the modern world. This argument is what creates the affinity between Islamophobia and other branches of the American conservative movement, dominated as they are by a cult of individual supremacy. In fact, one favorite gotcha quote used by the anti-Muslim right is the above-mentioned Sufi aphorism that the “real meaning of freedom lies in the perfection of slavery.” Stripped of its philosophical depth, it’s read as kin to 1984’s Newspeak slogan “Freedom is slavery.” National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, for instance, cites it to explain why the Arab Spring hasn’t resulted in a bloom of liberal democracies. 

The belief that Muslims somehow stand outside the West and its traditions has been critiqued elsewhere, including in an essay by Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” published in 2001 in these pages. Nothing, though, better gives the lie to the idea that a “fault line” separates Islam from modernity than the history of Atlantic slavery.

After the Spanish Conquest, Catholics tried to keep Muslims (and Jews) out of America. “Do not give consent,” read a 1501 royal prohibition against Muslims sailing across the Atlantic, “unless they are black slaves.”

Unless they are black slaves: there lay the problem, for slavery was Islam’s back door into the New World. Between 1501 and 1575 alone, of the more than 123,000 slaves brought to the Americas, over 100,000 were from the area surrounding the Senegal and Gambia rivers, where Islam had taken root centuries earlier. Muslims were present in the earliest slave ships that began to arrive in 1501 and, more than three and a half centuries later, they were on some of the last. They disembarked in the Americas’ northernmost slave ports, in New England, and the southernmost, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. 

Far from quashing individuality, belief in a universal, unseen god and membership in a larger prophetic community gave enslaved men and women a way of surviving—and contesting—slavery.

Muslims were involved in the first major slave revolt in the Americas, which took place on Christmas Day 1521 on a plantation run by Christopher Columbus’s son, and, three centuries later, led the largest urban slave uprising, in Bahia, Brazil, in 1835 (which, like the Tryal rebellion, was launched on the Night of Power). 

Among the rebels who rose up and seized the famous Amistad in 1839 were women who wore shawls, men who had been circumcised, and Africans who greeted each other by saying Sallam alaikum, which means that when their attorney, former US President John Quincy Adams, argued for their innocence by invoking the Declaration of Independence’s principles of natural-law liberalism—or, as Adams put it, the “law of Nature and of Nature’s God on which our fathers placed our own national existence”—he was defending Muslims.

* * *

Scratch a phobia and you’re sure to find philia just underneath. Anti-Islamic thought is centuries old, but so is its opposite, especially among late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers who were fascinated by Islam, believing that it represented a purer, more honest grappling with dilemmas found in the “West.”

Reporting on the remarkable ruse pulled off by Babo, Mori and their companions on Amasa Delano, the Peruvian viceroy wrote that it was Islam’s “perverse ideas”—namely its effort to find a balance between free will and fatalism under conditions of extreme suffering, along with its insistence on human dignity—that made the religion such a threat to Christian slavers.

In Europe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a founder of German nationalism and one of the most influential philosophers of his era, thought Islam more rational and less self-abnegating than Christianity, believing that faith in Allah represented a higher form of universalism: “We all live and die in Islam,” he wrote. In Great Britain, Thomas Carlyle felt Islam a useful alternative to the materialism, fragmentation and egoism of modern life. It might be a “bastard kind of Christianity,” he said, but it was “a living kind; with a heart life in it.” For his part, Hegel complained that too much “abstraction swayed the minds of the Mahometans,” and then proceeded to reduce all of world history to an abstraction.

Like others of his day, Melville swung easily between caricature and admiration when considering Muslim culture. He might use a turbaned “Moor” to signal opulent despotism, even as he appreciated Islam’s sublimity. Melville toured Turkey, Palestine and Egypt in 1856–57, and was both fascinated and repelled by the mass of humanity he witnessed. In Cairo, the city’s minarets, he wrote in his journal, were “wonderfully venerable” and “gleam like lighthouses.” In Istanbul, scattered among towering cypress trees, they reminded him of the “intermingling of life & death.” One wonders what he would have done with the character of Babo had he known that the real West African, along with many of his co-conspirators, were Muslim. That they were, though, is appropriate, for Melville too thought that the real meaning of freedom was found, as that ancient Sufi mystic put it, in recognizing the limits of freedom.

Melville believed in abolition. “But sin it is, no less,” he wrote of slavery; “…it puts out the sun at noon.” Yet he refused to define freedom as the opposite of bondage. All human beings, Melville thought, oscillate somewhere between the two extreme poles of liberty and slavery that defined much of the political rhetoric of antebellum America. His stories contained characters who were slaves yet made to seem free, and freemen, like Ishmael and Ahab, who were slaves, mostly to their own tangled thoughts and uncontrollable passions.

The point wasn’t, I think, to downplay the horrors of the actual existing institution of chattel slavery by relativizing it to other forms of oppression. Rather, it was to critique a particular definition of freedom that was taking hold in America. Later, on the centenary of the American Revolution, he would describe this truncated freedom as a “vile liberty” with “reverence” for “naught”—not for God, not for nature and not for others. Individualism masquerading as freedom, Melville thought, was no kind of freedom: it blinded people—as it blinded Amasa Delano—to the social world surrounding them.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

“All men live enveloped in whale-lines,” he wrote in Moby-Dick. “All are born with halters round their necks.” Whale lines, not fault lines. Melville is a good corrective to today’s Islamophobes, who seek to cleave the world into hostile ideological camps, and a remedy to individual supremacists, who want to deny the ties and obligations that all humans find themselves caught up in—the bonds, in fact, that make them human.

All the tomes of “human jurisprudence,” Melville wrote elsewhere in his whale book, could be reduced in essence to the whaler’s rule distinguishing “Fast-Fish” (harpooned or hooked on a line, and thus in the possession of a given party) from “Loose-Fish” (unclaimed and therefore fair game). “What plays the mischief with this masterly code,” Melville said, “is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it.” 

And once expounded, it turns out that there is no such thing as a completely “Fast” or a completely “Loose” fish. “What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish?” Melville asked. “And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?”


Read Next: Greg Grandin asks, “How did the US-Mexican border become the place where the American past chokes on itself?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.