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Aryan and Semite in Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold’s Quest for the Religion of Modernity

Nash, Geoffrey (2014) Aryan and Semite in Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold’s Quest for the Religion of Modernity. Religion and Literature, 46 (1). pp. 25-50. ISSN 0888-3769

Item Type: Article


In his study of religion Ernest Renan incorporated the nineteenth-century’s linkage between language, race and culture, in particular the Semitic-Aryan binary. Islam and Judaism were united in sémitism, a narrow religiosity that represented a bar to progress and modernity. Judaism and Islam were disparaged as twins in upholding a tyrannical religious law with rage and fanaticism. Islam in particular was marked as a debased continuation of Semitism into the modern world. Indo-Europeans, in contrast, had brought to the collective history of mankind the spirit of flexibility and the unfettered use of reason that had triumphed in the modern age. Renan and Arnold’s search for a suitable religion for modernity found a focus in Gobineau’s writings about Persian Shi’ism. Taking his cue from Gobineau, in his essay “A Persian Passion Play” Arnold instances Shi’ism as a blending of strict Semitic monotheism with a more generous, spiritual tenderness characteristic of an Aryanized Christianity. Gobineau’s account of Shi’ism’s mid-nineteenth-century offshoot Babism, exemplified Persia’s putative Aryan genius. The quality of sacrifice its followers evinced in the face of fierce opposition and repression especially moved Renan and Arnold as a modern manifestation of the leaven of martyrdom. Gobineau’s emphasis fell on the Bab as a messiah in the Christian mode, advancing a claim of a higher order than that of an Imam Mahdi in the Islamic idiom, so producing a variant of the European nineteenth-century penchant for discerning, in Tomoko Masuzawa’s phrase: “universalistic religion, genuinely Aryan in … origin, arising quite independent of Semitic monotheism.” Renan, Arnold and Gobineau each descried in these manifestations of religious feeling embedded in traditional practices and recent episodes in the Near East solvents for the agnostic scientism of Europe, even while their observations remained meshed into the Victorian conflation of race and modernity.

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Depositing User: Geoffrey Nash


Item ID: 6050
ISSN: 0888-3769
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Date Deposited: 07 Mar 2016 14:54
Last Modified: 30 Sep 2020 11:04