Nietzsche and Islam

When the celebrated German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was twenty-one, he wrote a letter to his sister Elisabeth from Bonn, where he was studying theology. In the letter, Nietzsche wanted to justify why he was abandoning his studies. He criticised what he saw as the provinciality of Christianity and suggested that, had he and his sister (both of whom were Lutherans) been followers of Muhammad* rather than Christians, their lives would not have been all that different:

Noch eine letzte Frage: Wenn wir von Jugend an geglaubt hätten, daß alles Seelenheil von einem Anderen als Jesus ist, ausfließe, etwa von Muhamed, ist es nicht sicher, daß wir derselben Segnungen theilhaftig geworden wären?
[Letter to Elisabeth Nietzsche, 11 June 1865]

Nietzsche was very critical of Judaeo-Christian Europe, and saw Islam and Islamic culture as “a handy store of alternative customs and values to undermine the universalist claims of both European Christianity and modernity” (Ian Almond, “Nietzsche’s Peace with Islam: My Enemy’s Enemy is my Friend”, in German Life and Letters, February, 2003)

In his comparisons between Islam and Christianity, Nietzsche “clearly felt there to be something essentially life-affirming about Islam” (ibid.)

Perhaps the most significant references by Nietzsche to Islam can be found in Der Antichrist, which he wrote towards the end of his life. The relevant sections follow:

“One needs but read any of the Christian agitators, for example, St. Augustine, in order to realise, in order to smell, what filthy fellows came to the top. It would be an error, however, to assume that there was any lack of understanding in the leaders of the Christian movement:– ah, but they were clever, clever to the point of holiness, these fathers of the church! What they lacked was something quite different. Nature neglected–perhaps forgot– to give them even the most modest endowment of respectable, of upright, of cleanly instincts…. Between ourselves, they are not even men…. If Islam despises Christianity, it has a thousandfold right to do so: Islam at least assumes that it is dealing with men….

Christianity destroyed for us the whole harvest of ancient civilization, and later it also destroyed for us the whole harvest of Mohammedan civilization. The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down (–I do not say by what sort of feet–) Why? Because it had to thank noble and manly instincts for its origin– because it said yes to life, even to the rare and refined luxuriousness of Moorish life!… The crusaders later made war on something before which it would have been more fitting for them to have grovelled in the dust–a civilization beside which even that of our nineteenth century seems very poor and very “senile.”–What they wanted, of course, was booty: the orient was rich…. Let us put aside our prejudices! The crusades were a higher form of piracy, nothing more! The German nobility, which is fundamentally a Viking nobility, was in its element there: the church knew only too well how the German nobility was to be won…. The German noble, always the “Swiss guard” of the church, always in the service of every bad instinct of the church–but well paid…. Consider the fact that it is precisely the aid of German swords and German blood and valour that has enabled the church to carry through its war to the death upon everything noble on earth! At this point a host of painful questions suggest themselves. The German nobility stands outside the history of the higher civilization: the reason is obvious…. Christianity, alcohol–the two great means of corruption…. Intrinsically there should be no more choice between Islam and Christianity than there is between an Arab and a Jew. The decision is already reached; nobody remains at liberty to choose here. Either a man is a Chandala or he is not…. “War to the knife with Rome! Peace and friendship with Islam!”: this was the feeling, this was the act, of that great free spirit, that genius among German emperors, Frederick II. What! must a German first be a genius, a free spirit, before he can feel decently? I can’t make out how a German could ever feel Christian….”

[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, English Translation by H L Mencken, sections 59 to 60]

*Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him

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