Meanderings & mawqifs of poetry, poetics, translations y mas. Travelogue too.

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Birds of Metal in Flight: an Evening of Poetry with 5+5

March 1st, 2015 · Poetry readings

Sinovision TV ran a story on the reading of the Chinese & American poets on Weds. at St. John’s Cathedral in NY in honor of Xu Bing’s Phoenix.

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Celan, Peyrafitte, Howe, Meyer.

February 28th, 2015 · Book Reviews, Performance, Poetics, Poetry

With the serialization of The Malady of Islam taking up all weekdays (& will do for another couple of weeks), I’ll use Saturday’s post to list other items/events of interest.

1) A Review of Breathturn into Timestead in The Arts Fuse:

Fuse Poetry Review: “Breathturn into Timestead” — A Magnificent Guide to the Enigmatic Poetry of Paul Celan

Feb 25 2015

 Once you have wrestled with Paul Celan, not against but along-side him in his poetry, you may find yourself with a changed and sharpened sensibility to image and language.

By Kai Maristed

A few days ago I was shopping in a big department store in Munich. At the cash register I set down the thick book of poetry (over 700 pages with annotations, thank you) that I’d been lugging around all morning. Quietly, almost under her breath, the clerk said, “Ach! Paul Celan.”

I looked at her. Mid-forties, buttoned-up cardigan, short curly hair. Clear pale eyes. “You know Celan?”

With a small smile, she recited from memory:  Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken sie abends / wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts… (‘Black milk of daybreak, we drink it in the evening / we drink it at noon and in the morning we drink it at night…) These are the first lines of Celan’s extraordinary poem, Todesfuge. (Death Fugue) Worked on for at least a year, published in his early collection Poppy and Memory, this ferocious, beautiful lyric challenged the famous statement by philosopher Theodor Adorno, that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

[ctd here]

2) Nicole Peyrafitte’s performance at The Poetry Project on Wednesday 25 February.

To see how the image below was created, check out the documentation & video on the blog, here.


3) A few books it has been my pleasure to spend some time with this past week:

Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars / The Telepathy of Archives. (Christine Burgin/New Directions 2014). Sumptuous stroll through the natural landscape of a library cormorant. If you are unconvinced that poems descend from other poems, that texts generate texts, that archives don’t entomb the dead but enliven the live, then spend some time with this book.


Thomas Meyer, Essay Stanzas (The Song Cave, 2014) Meyer — maybe my generation’s least well-known master-poet of the lyric imagination — gathers 4 sequences in this book which, as Peter O’Leary suggests, “compress Orphic oracle, Faustian apocalypse, oneiric pageant, invented fable, wisdom literature, cryptic joke, disturbing aphorism, epigrammatic wit and nervous ruin.” Here two (near random fragments) from the sequence “Kept Apart:”

a poet said
pointing to a dark spot
on the moon
that’s blck money
carried there by
dead traders
who fled earth
but in fact
those thieves
and smugglers
left their loot here on earth
and paid interets on that sum
with their deserted bodies
that poor innocent moon
must put up with these stories
that cause him such deep grief

cut and broken
shaped and chipped
stone becomes statue
yet we hear about
how every road
is lined with

Everybody remembers money
even at the point of death
even so tirelessly charity
works away
the last

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (9)

February 27th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Criticism, Cultural Studies, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists, Translation


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(9th installment)


Fundamentalism Against the West


Islam never had a Dante who summoned the intellectual audacity to make his writing address political events as they appeared in the reality of history.  I dream of this genius that Islam did not create:  he would have constituted the opposite pole to Ibn Taymiyya.  An exact contemporary of Dante, Ibn Taymiyya wrote his Siyâsa in the same period of time that Dante devoted to the composition of his Monarchia.

Until today, the world of Islam also lacked a figure like Frederick II, who didn’t allow himself to be guided only by the light of the dominant culture of his time. Wasn’t it he who introduced political forms and ways of thinking he borrowed from a foreign land because he deemed them more conformable to nature? Wasn’t it he who knew how to adapt them to the conditions of his State? How splendid it would have been if such a figure had arisen in our century to introduce democracy into the lands of Islam and spread it through the whole of its civilization, as Frederick II did, at the end of the Middle Ages, when he brought secular monarchy (even if it was by divine right) to the West.  Kemal Atatürk and Bourguiba, the most “western” political leaders of Islamic stock, did not manage to rid themselves of the despotic tradition they had inherited. In its persistence, this despotic tradition clouded the process of borrowing from the Europeans; Western ideas were skewed, or in any case not made attractive.  On the contrary, the vain expectation of civil liberties, as well as of material comfort, was a source of disappointment.  These experiences in their turn increased the political and cultural deficit.  This incomplete borrowing of a Western model constituted an additional failure, to add to the series of failures enumerated throughout the preceding developments.

Such failures leave the way open for questioning.  It is easy for xenophobic detractors to belittle the foreign model without letting themselves see the perversion it undergoes in application.  By calling for a return to their own tradition, the semi-literate agitators forget that the cause of the failure of democracy is the despotic atavism that is at the foundation of the tradition they invoke.  But they turn away from this difficulty by idealizing a return to Medina, to origins. 

We have seen how the utopia of Medina was often revived.  Using an example from modern times, recall that the Medina vision was at the origin of Wahhabism, and that it constituted the credo of fundamentalists, the salafis of the nineteenth century.  It will also be at the center of the system cobbled together by the fundamentalists from 1920-1930, with the emergence of the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite all their differences, all these tendencies have a common viewpoint in their unanimous reference to Ibn Taymiyya, even if their adherence to that Hanbalite doctor varies in intensity.

But an important attribute does distinguish them:  their relationship to the West.  This was not an issue during the appearance of Wahhabism; that movement was born in the eighteenth century, before the success of the West, before the conquest of the world by bourgeois imperialism.  Furthermore, the cradle of Wahhabism did not undergo colonial aggression, but only the wounds of internal violence, the military violence inflicted on it by the Viceroy of Egypt and by the Ottomans.  As a doctrine, Wahhabism expressed its polemical violence and its prescriptive coercion wholly within the conceptual field of Islam.  Its exclusivity manifested itself through an extremely rigorous theoretical position against the protected people of the Book, the Jews and Christians.  But the feeling of hostility directed at Christians was not accompanied by political conditions that could have converted it into anti-Westernism.  Further, the benevolence of the English during the formation of the Wahhabite State, followed by the early arrival of Americans for the oil, quickly sealed the alliance with the West.  This alliance of the Saudis with England and the United States was strengthened when Arab nationalism solidified its opposition to Europe and above all tothe United States (during the 1950’s up to the defeat of June 1967).  In this hostile context, the Americans, always taking support from the Saudis, encouraged Pan-Islamism against Pan-Arabism.  These same Americans will remember those times when in the 1980’s they helped to organize Islamic resistance in Afghanistan.  They did not know that they were in the process of feeding the viper that would turn against them to plant its fangs and spit its venom into the heart of the symbols that embody their financial and military power.   

Let’s return to the fundamentalists of the nineteenth century, especially the masters of that school of thinking, Afghâni and his disciple ‘Abduh.  In politics, they were opposed to European hegemony (as manifested through colonial domination).  But when it came to matters of the mind, they were completely fascinated by Western culture: by invoking the political categories inherited from the Age of Enlightenment (parliamentarism, freedom of expression) they led the fight against local despotism.  Their aim for civilization was to rediscover greatness by reconciling Western ideas with fidelity to tradition.  In their theology, they sought to find in the Koran even the elements of rational religion of the kind theorized by the positivist Auguste Comte.

In reality, the birth of anti-Westernism didn’t occur until 1920-30.  One indication in two different periods of time signals the shift from fascination with to revulsion towards Europe.  The disciple of Mohammed ‘Abduh, his spiritual heir, the Syrian Rashid Ridha (1865-1935), changed his opinion at the end of his life about the Wahhabites, whom he had treated as heretics in an essay of his youth. He had the courage to retract his statement by singing their praises even before their victory in Arabia (in 1932).[1]  After seeing them as adepts of a deviant doctrine, Rashid Ridha thought that the disciples of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhâb represented tradition itself (the sunna). 

This recantation reveals Ridha’s evolution toward a greater conservatism, which distances him from the breakthroughs of his master ‘Abduh, especially concerning borrowings from the West.  There was on his part a new insistence on the fact that the Islamic subject had to fight the moral influence of the West and oppose it with an ethics reconstructed from his own origins.  This breach will later be enlarged by Hassan al-Banna’ (1906-1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had participated, in his youth, in the inner circle gathered around Rashid Ridha.  Al-Banna’ even tried to keep the master’s journal (al-Manâr) publishing after his death.  Rashid Ridha would certainly have approved of the political program of the Brotherhood (in harmony with the evolution of his doctrine), but it is clear that he would have distanced himself from the violent and illegal methods toward which this same Brotherhood evolved when it used secrecy and political assassination.[2]

To make the new moral order a reality, the program conceived by al-Banna’ called on excluding any form of Westernism in teaching.  He demanded that primary schools be attached to mosques.  He rejected the adoption of European institutions in the field of politics, forbidding political parties and wanting civil servants to have religious training.  At the end of the Second World War, he even went so far as to assert that the Western city was failing, that he saw in it the convulsions of death, that, in the wheel of History, the end of Western hegemony had arrived.  The triumph of Islam would follow:

Here is the West, then:  after having sown injustice, servitude and tyranny, it is bewildered, and writhes in its contradictions; all that is necessary is for a powerful Eastern hand to reach out, in the shadow of the standard of God on which will float the pennant of the Koran, a standard held up by the army of the faith, powerful and solid; and the world under the banner of Islam will again find calm and peace.[3]

This text, written in 1946, might have been interpreted as a stance taken to confront the moral bankruptcy Europe experienced after the Nazi disaster.  But such an interpretation proves hollow when History teaches us that the Muslim Brotherhood had established ties with the forces of the Axis.  We should see in this quotation only an example of an anti-Western diatribe amounting at worst to delirium, at best to a pious wish, proceeding from a magical and millenarian attitude that does not reckon with the balance of power.  The intervention of a supernatural power would have been necessary, an apocalyptic upheaval, for al-Banna’s wish to come true.  What our predictor ignored is that the West is not magmatic; it is divided. [4] It had just been traversed by hostile armies, the shock of which had left millions of dead behind it. Faced with absolute barbarism of a kind never before seen, which had seized one of its most advanced peoples, and confronted by those who were the agents of the disaster, other energies had arisen that had resisted them and had triumphed over them.

I would have dismissed such proposals because of their vanity, their inanity, their logical and conceptual poverty, if they did not constitute a formidable vector for the diffusion of hatred, which, since September 11, has proven itself capable of carrying crime to its summit.  In al-Banna’s text, we can see the master plan of anti-Westernism, which is expressed through a simplistic discourse, hurling out his convictions as obvious facts.  We have seen how poor the discourse of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhâb, the man of the eighteenth century, was in comparison with the medieval masters, and now, with this text written in 1946, we are faced with an even poorer discourse.  Mediocrity deepens, it is bottomless.  The leveling down seems to be the sign of the poverty in which we recognize one of the symptoms of the sickness of Islam.  With such a quotation, the reader finds himself faced with a pathetic sample of rudimentary speeches welcomed by the greedy ears of the semi-literate consumed by resentment.

[1]  Rashid Ridha, al-Wahhâbiyyûn wa’l-Hijâz (Cairo, 1926).  See also Chaptrer 9, note 1.

[2] Two Prime Ministers are counted among the Muslin Broherhood’s  victims: Ahmad Maher (1945) and Nuqrashy Pasha (1948); Hassan al-Banna’ was assassinated in his turn in 1949.  Among the brotherhood’s violent actions, we must also cite the failed attempt against Nasser (October 1954), an act that, after the dissolution of their movement (January 1954), led officers of its junta to chase them down, execute some of them, and imprison or expel the rest. 

[3] Hassan al-Banna’, Nahwa an-Nûr (Towards the light), discourse sent by the author in 1946 to various Islamic heads of State, including King Farouk.  See Majmû’at ar-Rasâ’il (Alexandria, 1990),72.

[4] Translator’s note: By magmatic, the author refers to a single flow of lava, that is, a relentlessly advancing, homogeneous entity.


Other, less frustrated minds, belonging to that same sphere of influence, developed the logical subtleties of demonstration, at the cost of manipulations and conceptual attacks.  Such is the case of the Pakistani, Abû al-A’lâ Mawdûdi (1903-1979), and, to a lesser extent, of his Egyptian disciple, Sayyid Qutb (1929-1966), two voices who have a considerable echo in the present fundamentalist milieu, for whom terrorism is one of the weapons.  A considerable difference, however, distinguishes these two names:  the former remains pacifist and does not call for war, even if what he writes leads to it,  while the latter is an adept of the reactivation of jihad and of recourse to violence to accomplish his aims. 

Mawdûdi constructs a coherent political system, which follows wholly from a manipulation.  Hukm is God’s alone,” says the Koran.[1]  The noun hukm (the translation of which I’ll leave open for a moment) derives from the verbal root h.k.m., which means “to exercise power as governing, to pronounce a sentence, to judge between two parties, to be knowledgeable (in medicine, in philosophy), to be wise, prudent, of a considered judgment.”  Thus, hukm signifies power, empire, authority, judgment, order, commandment, wisdom, knowledge, science, strength, rigor, law, rule.  Most translators of the Koran, in French as well as in English, translate hukm as “judgment” or “power”[2]; others seek the sense of commandment or decision.  Exegetic tradition does not linger over this phrase, which is situated in a verse whose context is an address to idolaters:

Those whom you adore outside of Him are nothing but names that you and your fathers have given them.  God has granted them no authority.  Hukm is God’s alone.  He has commanded that you adore none but Him.  Such is the right religion, but most people do not know.[3]

Commentators never forget to remind us that this verse is devoted to the powerlessness of the companion deities [paredras] that idolaters raise up next to God.  The idols worshipped by pagans are considered as names that do not refer to any reality.  In sum it is a matter of an anti-nominalist critique.  And in such a context (which associates a theological question with its linguistic and aesthetic consequences), the word hukm is likened to other words that have to do with divine order (amr), or with the responsibility its application implies (taklîf).[4]  But here we see that Mawdûdi is the only one to associate hukm with sovereignty:  “Sovereignty belongs to none but Allah.” [5]  By this interpretative move, Mawdûdi, by attributing sovereignty to God, makes the entire political field change into the divine[6]. Starting from this scriptural justification, he wages war against all political systems. 

Legitimacy resides only in God.  This legitimacy can come neither from a democratically elected majority. Nor can it come from a national tradition of public consent,  a unanimous agreement in a convention,  the hegemony of a class or a party, or even from an aristocracy. It cannot come from a lay republic,  a secular monarch or one by divine right, or even from a dictatorship marked by arbitrary power (which is the political form that best corresponds to Mawdûdi’s interpretation).[7]  Legitimacy can be based only in God, in that transcendent instance that exceeds the ambitions of men and the greed of factions.  And the human rights that are at the foundation of society acquire their effectiveness only if they are submitted to the Law of God.  Starting with hukm, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian disciple of Mawdûdi, will forge a neologism constructed on the morphology of abstract ideas, so that the word is consonant  with the dignity of the concept:  hakamiyya, “sovereignty,” becomes one of the divine attributes. 

Thus religion has to be put back in the center.  Islam itself, under the influence of Western secularization, had marginalized the religious principle and had a tendency to privatize religious practice by assimilating it with individual piety.  So to restore the religious absolute in human society, Mawdûdi constructs a dyad that will be the driving force behind this restoration: worldly order will know its perfection by reconstituting the indissoluble link between rububiyya, the lordship of God, and ‘ubudiyya, the servitude of man dedicated to God alone, and no one else.  Sovereignty (or lordship) belongs to God alone. And, brought back to servitude, man will retain the complex notion of “subject” only as subjection, constraint, submission, subjugation.

The law of God is for the world and the universe the only framework in which man can live:  so he must submit to it…  Man wants to conform to the divine plan.  God is thus the only legitimate authority and the only source of the Law; He is Legislator.  Man owes obeisance only to Him.  And since he is created free and responsible, he is responsible towards God.  If man wants to be realistic, he must choose submission to the only authority that exercises a real sovereignty:  God.  Political leaders, monarchs, saints, angels or spirits, rabbis or priests can never exercise a legitimate authority through themselves.[8]

Thus the total empery of religion over society and the humans that compose it is conceived.  Democracy, secularization, secularity, the Nation-State, all the contributions of the modern West turn out to be absolutely illegitimate.  Such is the program.  Should we add that Mawdûdi insisted that this revolution take place through peaceful means, through persuasion, through respectful dialogue with the believers of the two other revealed religions? The point is superfluous when we measure the violence with which those who claim to follow this ideology act.  Furthermore, in the dialogue that Mawdûdi prays for, no place is granted to beliefs that are not based on monotheist foundations.  He does not even recognize the status of the Buddhist representatives that inhabit his immediate environment, while, for a Pakistani, those who worship the Buddha would have to comprise an internal otherness within his cultural sphere.

Moreover, can a place be found for the Other, in such a total system? Can one find the truth of the world and be confronted with the heterogeneity and diversity that color its rough relief when one limits a religion to such an exclusive and self-sufficient way of life? Can one still keep the fibers of emotion and feeling alive to be able to love and respond to the beauties handed down by the many peoples of Islam through the variety of their historic contribution? How can one benefit from the past and the present if one comes to the conclusion that the only Islam that conforms to the sovereignty of God is that of Medina and the first four caliphs? In this insane, absolute theocentrism, never before in the tradition of Islam so radically developed, the world is transformed into a cemetery.  If Mawdûdi reproaches the West with the death of God, we can accuse him of having inaugurated the death of humanity.  His outrageous system invents an unreal totalitarianism, which excites disciples and incites them to spread death and destruction over all continents.  That is the kind of negation of life, the nihilism to which theoretical reasoning leads when it is not subject to the control of practical reasoning.  And the judgment I pass on such a work is in the same vein as the criticisms made of Mawdûdi (eight years after his death) by his closest disciple, Mariam Jameelah, an American Jew he had converted.[9]

This radical and terrifying vision establishes a tabula rasa and transforms the world into a postnuclear world in which we find desolate landscapes wherever we look, on pages blackened by Sayyid Qutb.  Everything is at fault in the history of humanity as well as in its present; all thought, all representation is so insufficient that it merits annihilation. Everything must disappear, except the word of God as it is reported in his Qur’an.  Through the word incarnate as a book, the world will know “the liberation of man,” and even more “his true birth.” After having submitted himself to the subjugation that the sovereignty of God requires, after having placed himself in the service of His Lordship, man will be freed from all the other servitudes of the century, that of the machine as well as what man seeks to exercise over man.  That is the summary of the conclusion of one of the books by Sayyid Qutb, whose work is read by thousands of fascinated people, dreaming of that promised liberation that would transform man into one of the living dead, on a scorched land.[10]

In the conjunction between this theory and Wahhabism the most fatal fundamentalism was formed; the members of this sect are spread out over all the corners and recesses of the planet.  This conjunction had two major sequences.  I have already said that fundamentalism prospers on the rubble of experiments that fail.  I must add, on the pages of the repertory that registers failures, the collapse of Arab nationalism in its Nasserian version, a consequence of the June 1967 debacle.  That is when Arabia’s doors opened to the semi-literate from Azharians, who emigrated en masse in search of material gains.  It is in these goings and comings from one side of the Red Sea to the other that the first operational tie between fundamentalism and Wahhabism was woven.  But we must wait till the beginning of the 1980’s to see the second conjunction realized, even more formidable, since it took place on the ground of the war in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, in the very country where Mawdûdi propagated his ideology among his own people, and in their language.  From this double conjunction the Afghanistan of the Talibans will be born, and the Qa’ida of the Wahhabite Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, the Egyptian fundamentalist Ayman al-Zawahri, will be created.

[1].  Qur’an, 12:40.

[2] Jacques Berque translates:  “Power belongs only to God [Le pouvoir n’appartient qu’à Dieu],”  (Le Coran, [Paris: Sindbad, 1990], 249.)  Si Hamza Boubakeur translates:  “In truth, to judge belongs to God alone [En vérité, il appartient à Dieu seul de juger],” (Le Coran [Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 1995], 767.

[3] Qur’an, 12:40.

[4] Amr and taklîf are two synonyms that Fakhr ad-Dîn Râzi (1149-1209) proposed in his Great Commentary Mafâtîh al-Ghayb (The keys to the mystery), edited by Muhyi ad-Dîn (Cairo, 1933.) 18:114.

[5]  Mawdûdi, The Meaning of the Qurân, (Lahore, 1967-1988).

[6] It is possible that Mawdûdi’s interpretation was influenced by the presence of the word sult’ân just before the word hukm.  Sult’ân derives from the root s.l.t’. which means “to be absolute in commandment, to exercise absolute power.”  Sult’ân signifies “power, empire, strength, violence”; it also signifies “prince,” which will give “sultan” in French and English.  In the context of the verse that concerns us, I translated it as “authority.”  Once again, no traditional commentary retains the political meaning that the words hukm and sult’ân contain. 

[7]  I cannot avoid such a judgment, even if I know that the solution offered in fine by Mawdûdi is the paradoxical (and unrealizable) form of a democracy.

[8] Emilio Platti paraphrasing Mawdûdi’s doctrine in his book Islam… étrange? Au-delà des apparences, au coeur de l’acte d’islam, acte de foi [Islam… strange? Beyond appearances, in the heart of the act of Islam, act of faith], (Le Cerf, Paris, 2000) 277-279.  For the passages that have to do with Mawdûdi’s doctrine, I owe much to the part devoted to this topic in Platti’s book.  See especially:  “L’islamisme:  une réforme à la dérive (Islamism:  a drifting reform),” 270-92.

[9]  These critiques make up the body of an article that Mariam Jameelah published in 1987 in The Islamic Quarterly, published by the Islamic Cultural Center of London.

13.  Sayyid Qutb, Khasâ’is at-Tasawwur al-Islâmî wa Muqawwimâtihi [Specifics and foundations of Islamic conception], (Cairo-Beirut, 1978) 236.

[to be continued]

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (8)

February 26th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists, Translation, Uncategorized


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(8th installment)


A Genealogy of Fundamentalism


In 750 the Abbasids unseated the Umayyads by trying to charge the function of the caliph with sacred character through the spiritual legitimacy conferred by belonging to the “people of the house.” This lineage had been forged by a descent which the new pretenders to power claimed emanated from the loins of Abbas, the prophet’s uncle, whence their name.  After less than two centuries of glory, the Caliphate had been emptied of its substance by the middle of the tenth century, the era of that institution’s decline which saw the extension of the caliphal function to three figures. Besides the Caliph of Baghdad, two others declared themselves Caliphs, namely the Fatimid Mahdi of Cairo, and after him, the Umayyad emir of Cordoba. The caliphal function, eroded by this competition, had become symbolic with time; it had nearly breathed its last at the moment of the Mongol invasion, the fire of Baghdad and the assassination of the last Caliph to reside in the Mesopotamian capital (1258).

Baybars (1223-1277), the fifth Mameluk sultan of Egypt (of Turkish descent) was said to have “saved Islam” by kicking out the Crusaders and by stopping the Mongol invasion. [1] The sultan had a stroke of genius: he took in an offspring of the Abbasid family after the destruction of Baghdad (1258) to set this Abbasid up in Cairo and returned the title of caliph to him. This gesture helped Baybars integrate the holy cities of the Hijaz (Mecca and Medina) into the domains he ruled, and from Cairo he now could hold out the bright prospect of an Islamic Empire. Until 1517 the Caliph played for the Mameluks the role of the pontiff who gave religious legitimacy to their secular and military power, in turn controlled in its theological-juridical function by a third institution, the one comprising the corps of ulemas.

This era of exceptional greatness – the current state of Cairo bears witness to the splendor and architectural monumentalism of the Mameluks – was founded on a power structure in which the function of the sacred, the politico-military and the theologico-judicial functions were in actual fact separate, the whole structure being placed under the authority of the prince. The latter, the bearer of sovereignty, attracted to his person the current of sanctity, which fell on him doubly. Any human who attained the supreme function bore the mark of divine selection; on the other hand, the prince who watched over the application of justice represented the shadow of God on earth.

The last radiance of Islamic civilization over Arab lands took place under the Mameluk dynasty, with the domination on the one hand of the separation of the temporal from the spiritual and the redistribution,  and of the sacred over the secular arm on the other. This was the epoch when Cairo had become the last world-capital that Islam was to know. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who arrived there at the very end of the year 1382, could not hide how dazzled he was. [2] Faced with Cairo the great historian became truly enthusiastic. Up until then, Khaldun had been rather reserved in his reactions, sober in his expression, but now, describing the universal capital, he was on the verge of lyrical exuberance:

Cairo: metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, place of assembly of the nations, human anthill, high place of Islam, seat of power. Palaces without number rise everywhere, and everywhere flower madrasas and khanaqat where scholars shine like brilliant stars. The city spreads out along the shores of the Nile – the river of Paradise, the receptacle of the waters of heaven, whose floods quench the thirst of men, and give them riches in abundance. I have walked through its streets: a press of crowds, and markets overflowing with all kinds of goods. How often have I heard the praises of this capital, which has attained the truest degree of civilization and prosperity? Concerning her I have gathered a wide variety of impressions, some from my masters, some from friends and others from pilgrims or merchants. Here, to start with, is the impression of my friend al-Maqari – the grand Qadi of Fez and the greatest scholar of the Maghreb – which he shared with me upon his return from the pilgrimage in the year 740 (1339): He who has not seen Cairo will never be able to judge the power and the glory of Islam.[4]

The caliphal function will be revived again in 1517 for the benefit of the Ottoman sultan, but in an exclusively symbolic manner, precisely in order to signify that the religious function comes to adhere as a supplement to the figure of the sultan, whose primary function is imperial. Philip Mansel reminds us of this when he does not accept Fernand Braudel’s description of the Ottoman State as a counter-Europe. The concept of empire, which enlightened the politics of the sultans, was the very concept that had been active in Western history:

From 1453 Mehmed II, like his successors, also saw himself as heir to the Roman Empire and the only true emperor in Europe. […] The Turkish metaphor for worldly dominion was the Red Apple. Before 1453 the Red Apple was believed to be the globe held in the right hand of a giant statue of the Emperor Justinian in front of Haghia Sophia. After the statue’s destruction in 1453, the apple moved West and came to symbolize the Ottomans’ next goal: the city of Rome. […]

The Ottomans were also inspired by a desire to equal the glory of Alexander the Great. […] One of the favourite epithets, both of the sultans and their city, soon became alem penah, ‘refuge of the world. It appeared appropriate to create a multinational capital for an empire which, it was later calculated, contained seventy-two and a half nationalities [Gypsies were considered half a nationality].[5]

The subjects of this empire were aware that the political structure allowed them to live a double identity; this imperial attribute constitutes an astonishing foretaste of the usage current today in the United States and whose effects I have previously discussed.

The caliphal dignity came as an addition to the sultan’s imperial identification: a happy supplement that adds glory to majesty. Its adoption enriches the symbolic field of the empire, strengthened as much by the Western reminiscence as by the oriental inheritance. The imperial idea thus gave itself a wider universality. While after 1517, the caliphal function further sanctified the person of the sultan, the prophet’s remains that arrived the same year from Cairo and Mecca, constituted the visible elements of that sanctification. These relics included

The Prophet’s cloak, seal and swords, one of his teeth, and the hairs from his beard. His banner, of black wool, arrived from Damascus in 1593. These relics were not exposed in a mosque for public reverence but, like the Holy Shroud of Turin, remained secluded in the ruler’s palace, as a private dynastic treasure… […] The special Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, faced with marble panels taken from Cairo, was built for them in the third court of the imperial palace near the Sultan’s bedroom. [6]

As mentioned, the caliphate was to remain one of the Ottoman sultans’ attributes until the abolition of the sultanate by the Turkish republic in 1924. Let us note, however, how this concept is exceeded everywhere when one approaches it in its actual historical manifestation, and not as a myth used as a symbolizing tool by those who are haunted by a culture of the proper, of the specific, the very ones who preach an imaginary purity. That utopia is the one which Osama bin Laden and his minions cry over, agreeing in chorus that for them the beginning of Islam’s misery lies in the abolition of the caliphate. But we have just seen how, among the Ottomans, this caliphate constituted nothing but one additional authority interested to overdetermine the sanctification of the universal and already holy figure of the emperor.

[1] Baybars was of the first Mameluk dynasty, whose sultans were of Turkish origin; this first dynasty produced twenty-five sultans between 1250 and 1382.

[2] The reader who has not visited Cairo can get a sense of this splendor by consulting two works, precious for their illustrations as well as for the texts that accompany and explain them: Jean-Claude Garcin, Le Caire, (Paris, Mazenod & Citadelle,, 2000), cf especially the text on pages147-275, & the illustrations on pages 166-312; and Henri and Anne Stierlin, L’Egypte des Mille et Une Nuits, (Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1996) – to be consulted for its photographic documents framing sublime details of Mameluk architecture.

[3] At that time, Cairo was under the reign of al-Zahir Barquq, the first Mameluk sultan of Circassian origin. This second Mameluk dynasty produced twenty-four sultans.

[4] Ibn Khaldun, Le Voyage d’Occident et d’Orient, translated from Arabic (into French) by Abdessalam Cheddadi (Paris, Sindbad, 1980) p. 148-149. The admiration generated by Cairo signals that this city was far more important than any of the Western cities Ibn Khaldun had frequented (Tunis, Bejaïa, Tlemcen, Fez, Grenada, Seville).

[5] Philip Mansel, Constantinople: City of the world’s desire, 1453-1924 (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 6-7.

[6] Ibid. 42.


If we turn back to the thirteenth century, it would be useful to examine the standpoint of a foreigner, the Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), who was in contact with the Islamic power structure. He had negotiated in Arabic with his Muslim interlocutors, after having spent time in the Holy Land during the peaceful sixth crusade he had initiated in 1229. Before leaving the shores of Italy, the emperor was still engaged in the process that he had set in motion at the very beginning of his reign: to restore and reinforce the imperial structure. Because of this, the conflict with the papacy remained open, the positions of the two parties were irreconcilable, whether the adversary was Innocent III or Gregory IX. Furthermore, Frederick was in Palestine on his own authority, without having consulted the papacy. How could he have done so, given that he had been excommunicated? The problem that confronted the emperor was the same one that confronted the Muslim princes: what are the relations between temporal power and spiritual power, and what place should be accorded to religion and sacred symbols in the power structure as well as to the persons that incarnate it?

It was al-Kamil (d. 1238), the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, son of the famous Saladin, who encouraged Frederick II to come to the Orient, because of a foreboding that his brother Al-Ashraf, who reigned in Damascus, was plotting against him. Frederick himself sought to take advantage of this intra-Islamic dissension. When Frederick landed on the coast, al-Kamil was encamped in Nabluz with a formidable army. Once Frederick had disembarked, the sultan sent the emir Fakhr ed-Din as an envoy to him. The two became friends and spent much time discussing philosophy and the art of governing. Let me remind the reader that Frederick was a highly cultured man, educated in the Arab tradition; he shared the same concepts and references as his interlocutor. The discussions must have been fruitful and the emir no doubt would have reported them to his monarch al-Kamil, himself a scholar and poet who loved to exchange ideas with the scholars of his city.

The Orient had different connotations for these two great men. Unstinted admiration of the Arab mind was the weightiest factor with the Hohenstaufen Emperor. For Frederick II lived in a day when the East was the source of all European knowledge and science, as Italy and Roman culture were to the barbarian North, as of old the art and philosophy of Hellas were to Italy. The spirit of the medieval church was imprisoned in formula and dogma, the fetters could be loosened only by oriental Hellenistic knowledge, chiefly knowledge of the laws of Nature. Frederick was more determined than any contemporary to unlock these stores of knowledge, and he was destined to be, in virtue of his mental receptiveness and his Sicilian birth, the great intermediary and reconciler of East and West.[3]

After many mishaps and much temporizing, Frederick II, much appreciated by the Muslim negotiators, signed an advantageous treaty on February 18 1229. It stipulated that the Emperor extended his sovereignty over Jerusalem, except for the sacred enclaves that surrounded the Dome of the Rock and faced the al-Aqsa mosque. Bethlehem was also ceded, with the proviso that Islamic believers would have access to it in order to offer their prayers. This retrocession provoked the anger of the Muslims. Many recalled that Saladin had told Richard the Lion-Hearted how this city was as sacred to the Muslims as it was to the Christians, “and even more so, for that is where one night the Prophet ascended to Heaven, and where the angels assemble.”

So Frederick did not even maintain the pretence of a war for the faith: his Crusade was purely an affair of state, a matter concerning the Empire, not the church, and this could not have been made clearer than by the existence of his Muslim retinue. It was perfectly natural for Frederick, from the political point of view, to pose as an Oriental here in Syria.[4]

In his conversations with Fakhr ed-Din, Frederick brought up many questions regarding the state. They discussed the figure of the Caliph and the ineffectiveness of his political clout — Frederick had negotiated with political and military leaders and had obtained the kingship of Jerusalem. If the Caliph had added his voice to those of the protestors, his dissent had no effect. Frederick was fascinated by the fact that the Muslins had managed to neutralize their “pope:” he himself was forced to deal with the competition of his own pope, who had set himself up as versus imperator. Furthermore, Muslim sultans did not have to submit to excommunication, as he had to. Having also learned that the caliph was descended from the Prophet through his uncle Abbas and that the power had remained in the family, he said:

“That is excellent,” said Frederick, “ far superior to the arrangement of those fools, the Christians. They choose as their spiritual head any fellow they will, without the smallest relationship to the Messiah, and they make him the Messiah’s representative. That pope there has no title to such a position, whereas your Khalif is the descendant of Muhammad’s uncle.”[5]

It was as if Frederick had realized that Islam had in fact managed to resolve the problem of the relationship between the two powers, the temporal and the spiritual. By concluding that the role of the Caliph, descendant of the Prophet, was limited to the spiritual function, he is in agreement with what we have learned from the encounter in Mecca of the Imam Zayn al-Abidin and the Umayyad Hisham. It is as if the virtual we discern in this tale from the beginning of the eighth century had become the reality of the thirteenth century. Before his own eyes Frederick saw the realization of his idea: the subjugation of the spiritual to the temporal order. And the way in which thirty years later Baybars will exploit the figure of the Caliph for the sanctification of his own temporal glory is a consequence of that same reality.

Frederick, the excommunicated emperor, in the end staged his self-coronation at the Holy Sepulcher, placing on his head the holy crown of Jerusalem. This event had as its actor an excommunicated prince and as its stage the most sacred site in Christendom, but no intermediation by the Church, no bishop, no coronation mass. The ceremony took place Sunday March 18 1229, and on that day Frederick restored the principle of a kingship that connects directly with god without mediation by the Church.

Frederick II brought western “monarchy” back from the Orient. The Hohenstauffen descendant will waver between the model of the old Christian empire (where the emperor incarnates the double glory of majesty and of holiness) and the new format introduced by secular monarchy. Through this ambivalence the emperor cut the domain of the immaterial in two: he left matters of the soul to the Church and assigned matters of the mind to the State. The ecclesiastical hierarchy of grace was given as its counterpart the secular and intellectual hierarchy of law. On this point he must have profited from his conversations with Fakhr ed-Din: indeed, he did try to adapt the theologico-judicial institution of the ulemas to his own culture, and founded the University of Naples to attract juridical scholars, “twins” of the ulemas.[6]

It goes without saying that Frederick’s authorities where not exclusively Eastern. He also cited such figures as Justinian, the emperor of the legal code, and Augustus, the emperor of peace. Here I just wanted to recall the astonishing likeness to Islamic structures of power founded on a tripartite division distinguishing three concepts: nature, mind, and soul. Through the first, sovereignty is invested in the monarch. Under the authority of the state, the second gives intellectual power to the ulemas, or the juridical scholars. The last is conceded to the caliph-imam (or to the pope). We are very close to what Baybars accomplished around 1260 in Cairo.

But Frederick’s imperial experience gains its autonomy and Christian specificity in the tension between two legitimate cults of divinity: the law and the mystery of the sacraments. Such a philosophy of the State and of Justice expresses all the violence that will bloody the relationship between the Church and the State, both in direct contact with God. Dante will be the eloquent ponderer of that tension in his De Monarchia as in all of his works. According to the Florentine poet, while the contemplative life can be saved by the Church, the active life can realize itself concretely only under the reign of the law and of a sanctified State.[7]

[1] Throughout this development I am drawing on the excellent monograph by Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, 1194-1250, translated by E. O. Lorimer, (New York, Unger, 1957.)

[2] The dynasty of the Ayyubids, founded by Saladin, reigned over Egypt (to which it added Syria) from 1171 to 1249.

[3] E. Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, 192.

[4] Ibid. 191.

[5] Ibid. 192-193.

[6] Ibid., 237.

[7] ibid. p. 247.

[to be continued]

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (7)

February 25th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Essays, History, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists, Translation


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(7th installment)


A Genealogy of Fundamentalism


 In a text published a few months before her death, Simone Weil warned with great lucidity that “an Americanization of Europe would certainly prepare an Americanization of the whole earth.” [1] She also foresaw the role America would play in the advent of the post-colonial era, and with trepidation had the foreboding that Europe would not grasp the opportunity to stop the march towards such an event, one that would metamorphose the fate of the world”

America, having no colonies, and thus no colonial prejudices, and naïvely applying her democratic criteria to everything that doesn’t concern herself, looks without sympathy upon the colonial system. No doubt it is at the point of seriously shaking up a Europe grown dull in its routines. Now, by taking the side of the populations subjected by us, it gives us, without understanding it, the best help for resisting in the future its own influence. It doesn’t understand this; but it would be disastrous if we didn’t understand it either.[2]

The Europeans didn’t understand it, and the Americanization of the world slowly began to replace its Europeanization. Colonialism came to an end, but with a lack of awareness: with the refusal to see that decolonization constituted one of the ineluctable effects of the post-war. Simone Weil’s lucidity bears witness to this. The attempt then was to put off the inevitable. This postponement lasted for fifteen years (1945-1960), during which time the blindness of the politicians cost us much suffering and several hundred thousand dead. The case of Algeria eloquently illustrates this fatal European irresponsibility. But that is another issue, to be adjudicated elsewhere, outside the scope of this book.

For the purposes of this discussion, the point is that the world has gone from Europeanization to Americanization. Traditional colonialism slowly made way for alliances between sovereign countries, though these were often enough reduced to implicit protectorates in which the protecting power shares a large part of the riches with the native population it protects. In Saudi Arabia or in the United Arab Emirates the visitor is impressed by the material comfort that has taken over the cities, whose profile bears witness to a more global Americanization, going far beyond the luxury items that clog up the people’s daily lives. Yet the legislation of these countries keeps the strict appearance of archaic religious law, even if, concerning business legislation – token of local participation in the global market – the local contracting party espouses more than it is ready to admit the shape of international law. Such accommodations are made secretly; there is no interference as long as the appearances are kept up.

There is a sort of adaptation to the scale of the globe of the double understating that characterizes American identity on its own territory: an identity of one’s home that differs from the identity of the polis, the city; an allegiance to one’s community that parallels allegiance to the state. It is this ambivalence that characterizes the American citizen.  Very often a particular identity is based as much on the religious community as on the ethnic one, though it is the religious one that is recognized by the state. A range of beliefs, which in France would be considered illegal sects, have the right to legally register as official religions; every faith can acquire a judicial status protected by the authority of the state.

But it is not such proliferation that is important in our demonstration. It is rather the common feeling toward which, it seems, all these faiths converge, and that is best illustrated by the one religion native to America, that of the Mormons. Harold Bloom calls this psychological predisposition in which many faiths come together “American religion,” and sees it as the attribute of an emerging post-Christian nation. It is perhaps in such a bringing together that the plurality of secondary identities finds its unity. What constitutes the American being is on the one hand the duality of belonging, on the other the folding of all religious faiths into a single feeling. Maybe this structure is transposable everywhere and thus authorizes the Wahhabite to be an excellent and authentic participant in the Americanization of the world.

Archaic in his faith, brilliant technologist of the market place, this divided being can be found in America itself, as much in the psychological predisposition just described as through the support of faiths from other continents and other times. That’s what I saw in Brooklyn, in the small Ashkenazi synagogues of Borough Park, toward the end of a September evening when I had found myself alongside Polish Hassidim who were celebrating the end of the feast of Tabernacles. It was Simchath Torah, when the believers take up again the first words of the Torah at the very instant when they have pronounced the last ones: so that the end of the last liturgical year and the beginning of the new one touch. The atmosphere was archaic. I had the feeling that I was witnessing a very ancient rite that had migrated across the Atlantic in the very form it had taken on in eighteenth century Poland. I went from stiebl to stiebl only to discover men celebrating the Torah as an object of adoration, on great scrolls which the bearded black-clad celebrants dressed wrapped with satiny shawls I imagined to be pure silk. They cajoled the rolls thus covered, as one would cajole a child or a lover. The hat-wearing men danced alone, the women did not have the right to either dance or come into the interior of the temple. The next day these same men would gather again in Manhattan to deploy their skills in jobs that covered the breadth of the information chain, from the conception of software to the sale of hardware.

[1] Simone Weil, “A propos de la question coloniale dans ses rapports avec le destin du peuple français Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris, Gallimard,1960.

[2] Ibid. p. 377

[3] Harold Bloom, The American religion, The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992.


The modernization that gripped other Islamic countries during an earlier phase (that of the nation state) was conducted on the European model. This was the case, for example, for Kemal Atatürk’s enterprise in Turkey (starting in 1922) or for that triggered by Bourguiba in Tunisia a generation later (in 1957). The latter had had dealings with the juridical spirit of the French Third Republic and was determined to found a state and a society that were both secular. But the principles he had learned from his university education were accompanied by reflexes emanating from local atavism. The democratic principles of his Occidental genealogy were annulled by an actual use of power resembling that of an oriental despot. The flourishing of this tyrannical atavism was explained as a necessary circumstance in Tunisia’s situation. To adapt Tunisian society to the change that would remedy its ills, Bourguiba needed to institute an authoritarian state capable of sustaining the pedagogical vocation that he had bestowed upon himself..

In the relationship between religion and sovereignty, it was not easy to move from the sharia laws to a legal system devoid of theologico-political influence. Even in the most advanced constitutions, such as the Tunisian, the legislator stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state. The citizen is accordingly not free to choose his belief (or unbelief), which needs to conform with the prince’s. Such an arrangement brings us much closer to the situation analyzed by Hobbes than to the spirit of French law expressed in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. We are indeed not very far from Hobbes, when he writes:

Subjects can transferre their Right of judging the manner of Gods worship on him or them who have the Sovereign power… [in all Christian Churches, that is to say, in all Christian Cities,] the interpretation of sacred Scripture depend on, and derive from the authority of that man, or Council, which has the Soveraign power of the City… [And thus in Christian Cities] the judgment both of spirituall and temporall matters belongs unto the civill authority.[1]

This theory was lucidly reformulated by Diderot in an article he wrote on “Hobbism” for the Encyclopédie, and which is in tune with the spirit of several contemporary Arab constitutions. Despite all theirother differences, these agree in subjecting the governance of religion to political authority: “It was up to the sovereign to prescribe to the peoples what was to be believed of God and of things Divine.”[2]

Some residues of the theologico-political order have, we see, not been completely removed in these experiments of judicial modernization. This state of affairs manifests itself at the minimum through the central position accorded the executive power, which takes the form of a leader as a pregnant incarnation of the State. It is as if in the mind of the modern – and even modernist – legislator, there persisted unconsciously the idea that the one who represents sovereignty casts the shadow of God on the earth, an idea that was articulated by a number of medieval Islamic pens despite the theological controversy it created. The liquidation of the theological by the political turns out to be at least as difficult, not to say impossible, as Carl Schmitt shows it to be, in his response to Peterson when discussing the much more profoundly secular Western tradition.[3]

Whatever State was created in the era of the nation-state, whatever the principles on which the legislator based himself, these States unconsciously did nothing except modernize the tradition of the emirate and give it a new form.[4] The institution of the emirate was theorized by Mawadi (d. 1031); it is polymorphous and changes form according to circumstances. The form that seems to fit best with the modern version is the one which has the emir take power by force (imarat al-istila’)[5]. Mawardi regards seizure of power as legitimate if recourse to it prevents rebellion or secession in the prince’s territories. On this basis, the cult of the leader can find fertile soil in which to flower. Carl Schmitt’s theory, now easily explains the preeminence of the leader: The exceptional condition that legitimizes it becomes the norm. The one who makes the decisions in an exceptional situation holds the power to suspend the law temporarily, or at least in such a situation the executive trumps the legislative.

Incidentally, provision for this can also be found in the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic, and De Gaulle invoked it during the exceptional situation created by certain events during the Algerian war.[6] This double explanation accounts for the universal presence of an incarnated State in the Islamic countries. Such a State reanimates the theologico-political imprint that marks dictatorships; the imprint fades away to the point of becoming nearly invisible in the republican and democratic state.

In the countries under consideration, political power is nearly always wielded by the armed forces. Now, the role of the military in the political field does not come from the model of the caudillo as realized in Spain or in Latin America. This phenomenon has a genealogy all its own, to be traced back to the figure of the emir. Here too it is a matter of a tradition of Islamic history; since before the suspension of the Caliphate, starting at the beginning of its decline (i.e. from the tenth century onward), the military militias, becoming conscious of their power, took over the State apparatus, and decided to govern at their own pleasure. The emirates formed as soon as the Caliphates started their decline.

[1] Thomas Hobbes. De Cive.(Oxford: Oxford University press, 1983.) pp.196, 248,249.

[2] Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, vol. 8 (Neuchâtel, 1765).

[3] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: four chapters on the concept of sovereignty, translated by George Schwab (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 1985). See before all chapter 1, “Definitions of Sovereignity, “ 5-15.

[4] I include in this observation the States whose legislators were conscious of the rupture introduced by their borrowing from the spirit of European constitutionality. I am thinking among others of the states refounded by Atatürk and Bourguiba.

[5] Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi, Al-Ahkam as-Sult’aniyya (“The Principles of Power”), p. 39-41, (Beirut, n.d.), [Translator’s note: For a partial translation with an introduction and annotations by Darlene R. May, see also here.] ] [Al-Mawardi’s “al-Ahkam al-sultaniyah”

[6] The creators of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic counted among them attentive readers of Carl Schmitt, including René Capitant who wrote an article on “the national-socialist State” (1938), reissued in Schmittiana, Eclectica, 17th year, Bruxelles, 1990.


Without going further than glancing at the chronicle that is the history of Islam, one realizes that each of its pages denies any dogma that affirms the consubstantiality of the religious and the political. Many Western Islamologists share that belief with the fundamentalists. It is an idea that also haunts the press and the various media meant to inform the public. But I dare to maintain that this judgment (which takes itself to be dogma) is only an allegation. Political power has very often been exercised by military men who clothed themselves in the attributes of the emir and who then had to negotiate the kind of relationship they were to have with the constituted body that speaks in the name of religion, the ulemas. These scholars in theology represented the juridical-theological authority.

When historians has an essentialist vision of human affairs, they invokes the Prophet of Islam, who was a warrior-prophet, a founder of a political society. Historians repeat that in the very genesis of Islam, at its very foundations, any rational being will detect the consubstantiality of the political and the religious. This latter did exist, and was prolonged with the creation of the Caliphate, assumed by the successor, the delegate of the Prophet. This Caliphate is apparently characteristically Islamic: a sovereign succeeds the Prophet in the fullness of His functions, as leader of the community. The concept has another use, revealed in the Qur’an: man is established in his sojourn on this earth as “caliph (of God) on earth.”[1] Theocentrism is thus bound to anthropocentrism. With such double binds, to which can be added non-interiorization of the Galilean discovery, the Islamic subject feels little ease in making his way towards his destiny while bearing the same narcissistic wounds already suffered by Western man: the decrepitude of the geocentric, the theocentric, the anthropocentric.

Let us return to the figure of the caliph. No scriptural arrangement (either in the Qur’an or in the Sunna) can turn it into a religious obligation. Sheikh Abd ar-Raziq’ recalls this in his treatise already cited: “The caliphate was not only neglected by the Qur’an, which never as much as evoked it, but also by the Sunna which does not mention it at all.” [2]

However, the second Qur’anic mention of the term concerns a prophet-king. God addresses David as follows: “We have made of you a caliph on earth.” [3] This reference may thus at best give permission to construct a theory of sovereignty around a theologico-political vision. The result would be an overdetermination of the person of the sovereign: he is the vicar of God on earth as all men are, but he is God’s shadow as prince. This quality, which we encounter in both the Orthodox and the Catholic traditions, makes it impossible to imagine an Islamic specificity for the caliphate, the latter legitimizing the political function by prophetic delegation. The inference triggered by the Davidic attribute concerns only the theological intervention sanctifying the political function, and not the inverse operation, according to which the caliph would gain his legitimacy because he is a successor of the Prophet, and as such be entrusted with temporal power as one who from the onset is vested with the sacred function.

History concretized the ideal figure of the caliph only for a brief period. The possibility of regulating the question of legitimacy by sharing the power between caliph and imam arose very early on, starting with the first Arab empire in Damascus, that of the Umayyads (640-750). The civil war triggered by the struggle to determine legitimacy caused a trauma, which curiously enough did not interrupt or even slow down the irresistible rush of the first conquerors. The conflict came to a head between the “people of the house” (the descendants of the Prophet) and the mercantile aristocracy of Mecca (whose chiefs had fought Islam at the beginning of the prophetic predication and who had heard in the first revealed verses only a mystic’s ravings). The assumption of power by the Meccan clan of the Umayyads can be understood as an usurpation. With reconciliation in view, the caliphate could have split in two; the festering question of legitimacy could have been resolved by a separation between the spiritual function (assigned to the imam, a descendant of the prophet) and the temporal function (assumed by one or the other of the clans that made up the Meccan tribe of the Quoraysh).[4]

The notion of this separation must have passed through the minds of the time. I find these premises in a poem improvised by the official poet Farazdak (d. 728). Literary tradition does indeed recall that prince Hisham (who would be the tenth Umayyad caliph, from 724 to 743), was in Mecca at the time his father Abd al-Malek reigned in Damascus (he was the fifth caliph of the same dynasty, from 685 to 705). While Hisham was performing the ritual circumambulations of the veiled cube, he tried to approach the black stone in order to touch it, but was unable to draw close to it because of the dense crowd.[5] He was brought a seat on which he sat to gaze on all these people jostling each other. He was accompanied by Syrian notables. Now, while he sat there, the Imam Zayn el-‘Abidin, the son of Husayn, son of Ali approached and started his circumambulations.[6] When he found himself at the level of the Black Stone, the crowd drew back and let him through so that he could touch the Stone. At this one of the Syrian notables asked Hisham: “Who is that one whom the people venerate with such fear?” To which Hisham answered: “I do not know him,” out of fear that the people from Syria would in their turn start to worship him. Farazdak, who was present, spoke up & said: “I do know him.” And then started to declaim:

The flagstones recognize this one’s footfall
The temple recognizes him as does the sacred enclave
This one is born from the greatest of created beings
He is the pious the pure the lord of holiness
He is the Grand-son of Fatima if you don’t know who he is,
Know that his ancestor is the last of the prophets
It is not by saying who he is that you would diminish
The fame of the one you pretend not to know
The Arabs recognize him and so do the foreigners
God has honored him always and has glorified him
Thus has it been ever since the Prophet’s pen first inscribed the sheet
He who thanks God does so by thinking of this master first of all
From his house religion has been given the nations
The prophets grace has bowed towards his ancestor
And the grace of his nations has conquered the other countries
He belongs to a tribe that by an act of faith one has to love
Hating them plunges you into the very heart of impiety
Their proximity confers refuge and asylum
They are the masters for all pious people
And if you are asked who are the best on the inhabited earth
You’ll answer it is they and nobody can supplant them. [7]

Far from being the enemy of the Umayyads, the poet who improvised these verses was their official thurifer. But, faced with Hisham’s denial, he couldn’t repress this cry from the heart bearing witness to the charisma of the “people of the house.” The scene of which this poem is emblematic makes everyone aware of the division of the two functions: the reader of such a document recognizes that the crowd of pilgrims (representing the people of Islam) receives the son of the Caliph, and a future caliph himself, with indifference, while greeting with veneration the imam whose grand-father was assassinated in Koufa (in 660) and the father massacred in Karbala (October 10 680), a tragedy of which he was one of the survivors.

This story alone furnishes the proof that in the mind of the people there was a clear difference between temporal power and spiritual charisma. An anecdote that shouldn’t have been unique; its repetition might have established a fact that the law could then have registered and formalized. But the truth of the fact was neither theorized nor taken into account by the jurists.

[1]Qur’an 2:30, In this passage God, just before creating Adam, announces to the assembled angels: “I will place a caliph on this earth.” (through this verse, man is invested with the divine vice-regency).

[2] Ali Abd ar-Raziq,Al-Islam wa uçul al-Hukm, 67.

[3] Qur’an, 38:26.

[4] Had the spiritual function been assigned to the imam, the title of Caliph would have had to be granted him.

[5] The cube at the center of the temple is called the Ka’ba: the angle that looks east is called Iraqi, the angle that is oriented toward the north is called Syrian, the one that throws its shadow toward the south, Yemeni; finally it is along the Western angle that the black Stone is sealed; esoteric tradition identifies this angle with god’s right side; the pilgrim who touches the Stone and kisses it is supposed to state his allegiance to God through that gesture.

[6] Zayn al-‘abidin belonged to the descendants of the Prophet via the latter’s daughter Fatima and cousin Ali; he is recognized by the Shiites as the third imam.

[7] Farazdak, Diwan, (Beirut: Dar Sader, n.d.) 2:178-181,

[to be continued]

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (6)

February 24th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Essays, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists, Translation, Uncategorized


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(6th installment)


A Genealogy of Fundamentalism


The movement that tried to take power in the lifetime of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab came to nothing. The troops of the viceroy of Egypt’s, Mohammed ‘Ali (1769-1848), managed to chase the Wahhabites from the Hejaz after a violent campaign. (Jacques Berque has wondered how the Egyptian generals were able to take their canons all the way to Dar’iya, that cradle of Wahhabism, where in the seventies he had glimpsed the citadel of the Sauds still in ruins[1]). A new attempt toward the middle of the nineteenth century did not succeed any better. But the ideological seeds had been sown, and at the very beginning of the twentieth century the conditions were ripe for reviving the project. The tribe of Ibn Saud, forever linked to this puritanical ideology, reactivated the process; thirty years later it had imposed its hegemony on the greater part of the Arab peninsula, pacifying all the tribes, and created – in 1932 – the Saudi state, with Wahhabite ideology enshrined as official doctrine and buttressed by a zealous militia watching over its scrupulous application.

Without the wealth created by the exploitation of oil resources, the Saudi state and the ideology that underlies it would have remained marginal phenomena. Its domain would have been limited to an inhospitable terrain on which a minor sect would have survived, before either dying out or surviving in rough austerity, in accordance with the dire scarcity of desert living. But thanks to the power acquired through the petro-dollar, the Saudis were able to spread their simplistic ideology and prey on the civilization that the nations of Islam have created over more than a thousand very full years of history. Through the technological means of sound and image (which are the means of the Americanization of the world), they wounded Islam profoundly by abolishing or suspending its various creative dimensions.

Havoc has been wrought among local cultures who harbor the cult of the saints and its expression as festive theater, the live witness in this century of an ancient and totally Dionysian energy redeployed in the contours of Islamic faith. The ceremony of the trance has been able to survive into the heart of the twentieth century: I was its amazed witness during my childhood and I found it again in the eighties, at the moussem animated by the Issawa of Meknes to celebrate the Prophet’s birth-day. But censure is at work. Under the insidious influence of Wahhabism, political authority has decided to attenuate the intensity of ancient practice, to smooth out its rough edges, to control its creative urge.

Will such a sense of potlatch spending slowly wither away? What can we do to help preserve the ceremonial of the trance maintained for so long by the Issawa of Meknes? E.R. Dodds has unearthed surviving aspects in them that throw light on antique Maenadism or give an overview of the energy that leads to the loss of self, the exact sort that led Agave to fail to recognize her son Pentheus, to dismember him and to feed on his live flesh, as Euripides shows in the Bacchae[2].

We might object: “How can you mount a defense of those barbarous scenes, clearly the products of irrationality, when you have presented yourself so far as a partisan of reason?” My answer to such a charge: For a long time now I have made the separation of domains into an art of living, so as not be the victim of the reduction that the logic of reason imposes. In relation to politics, I use prudence, moderation, common sense, declare myself a down-to-earth realist and submit to the teachings of Aristotle, Voltaire and Kant. In short, I see myself as Apollonian in that area. But in poetry, in art, in the adventure of inner experience, I become a man of excess, of unboundedness, I become celestial, I navigate in the wake of Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille[3]. And I discover myself as Dionysian. In this paradoxical logic, love of the Enlightenment does not make me occult the darker face of man.

The aesthetic span immanent to the works and days has withdrawn from the daily life of the cities. The subtleties of the traditional doctrines have often exiled themselves, and taken refuge in native hearts and minds that have opted for withdrawal. Or these doctrines continue among Europeans who had converted to Islam (in the wake of René Guénon) by the means of Sufism and the ardor of its teachers. Modern times have permitted the Islamic subject to prosper by joining the global market place while remaining archaic at home. Are we not living the time of the Americanization of the world? Are we not undergoing one of the effects of the communitarianism and multiculturalism that are shaping the American cities? This is a question I am pondering – and which remains unanswered.

Should one see in the American-Arab alliance only geo-strategic considerations and a pure conjunction of interests?  Turning to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, I reread chapter two of the first book, the very title of which announces the archeological, genealogical method[4].  The return to an understanding of the past illuminates the present of the nations and their future. To understand “the great social enigma the United States presents to the world in our time,” Tocqueville returns indeed to the founding legislations, rereading the code of laws promulgated by the state of Connecticut in 1650. Focusing their attention on the penal laws, the legislators

strange to say, […] borrow their provisions from the text of Holy Writ. “Whosoever shall worship any other God than the Lord,” says the preamble of the Code, “shall surely be put to death.” This is followed by ten or twelve enactments of the same kind, copied verbatim from the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy –  Blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, and rape were punished with death; an outrage offered by a son to his parents was to be expiated by the same penalty.[6]

When I read such a text, I have the feeling that Wahhabite Saudi Arabia and Puritan America were held over the same baptismal fonts. At their origin, both states share a legal base rooted in religious reference; by recourse to Holy Writ they apply rough and archaic corporeal punishments in order to preserve the virtue of the social body. But it would be dishonest to stop with this astounding report, which seems to attribute surprising elective affinities to our two states; two pages later, Tocqueville adds:

In strict connection with this penal legislation, which bears such striking marks of a narrow, sectarian spirit and of those religious passions which had been warmed by persecution and were still fermenting among the people, a body of political laws is to be found which, though written two hundred years ago, is still in advance of the liberties of our age[7].

It is these political dispositions which impose a radical difference, one that moves us away from the perceived identity. But it is possible that this dialectic of the same and the different creates a misapprehension. In truth, and with a little help from the sin of naiveté, the religious reference in the Saudi political setup should not shock the American protagonist. Even if, as Tocqueville also writes, “in America religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of the divine laws leads man to civil freedom.”[8]

That is one more paradox that can only help fuel misunderstandings. Though religion has led to freedom and knowledge in America, religion filtered through the Wahhabite schematics can only uphold subjection and ignorance. Unconscious of his servitude and blindness, the Wahhabite sectarian walks hand in hand with the American; the two partners are equipped with foundational references that, superficially, resemble each other: such appearances can sustain the illusion of a natural alliance. On the stage of the global market place, the American takes the Wahhabite as an apprentice and initiates him into techniques that help him breathe in the rhythm of America, wherever in the world he may find himself. Through this association, the Wahhabite enriches himself materially and invests in the propagation of his faith. By acquiring wealth he honors his spiritual genealogy: didn’t Ibn Hanbal declare that to become rich is a divine duty? Didn’t Ibn Taymiyya insist that to put one’s wealth in the service of religion constitutes an imperative it would be reprehensible to avoid?

The Saudi-American idyll will be troubled only by the birth of that strange figure of the “Wahhabite’s Wahhabite.” This character will denounce the Wahhabite who has not been faithful to the doctrine and who has let himself be seduced by the other side of being American, the side which blemishes the puritanical vision of Islam. Bin Laden and the numerous Saudis who took part in the attacks of 9/11 perfectly illustrate the figure I have called the Wahhabite’s Wahhabite. The staging of such a doubling hollows out the person, opening up an aporia that confronts it with a more radical double; I adopt it here by analogy with an episode invented by the Sufi Qushayri (986-1072) when he comments on one of the verses relating to the temptation of Adam in the Garden: 

After having succumbed to the suggestions of the Demon, Adam, furious that his purity had thus been soiled, says to him: “You damned one, you have tempted me and I have acted on your instigations.” To which the Demon answers: “Certainly, Adam, I was the demon who inspired you; but can you say who is my demon?[9]

[1] Jacques Berque, Langages arabes du présent, p. 124, Gallimard, Paris, 1974.

[2]E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Beacon Press, Boston 1957.pp. 270-278.For the scenes of sparagmos (the absorption of live animal or human flesh) as they are shown in Euripides’ play, cf. The Bacchae of Euripides, translated By C.K. Williams, The Noonday Press, New York, 1990, especially verse 139, p. 14, concerning the consumption of Theban cattle, and verses 1239ff concerning the dismemberment of Pentheus. 

[3] Abdelwahab Meddeb, “Art et transe,” pp. 72-79, Esprit, no. 220, 1996.

[4] “On the Point of Departure and its Importance for the Future of the Anglo-Americans,” in: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. ed. and with an introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000)

[5] The reader will notice that it is exactly that genealogical approach that the book underhand tries to honor.

[6] Tocqueville, Democracy in America,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Qur’an, 6:19; and Al-Quashyri, Lat’aif al-Isharat, ed. I. Al-Basyuni (Cairo, 1981), 1:524.


As I have already mentioned in this book, Islam knew great things very early on, but the process it initiated was interrupted. The reader has the right to demand the reasons for this interruption. Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain the drying up of the creative wellsprings. There was first of all the progressive loss of international commerce. Islam had established its greatness at the very moment when Europe had fallen into lethargy (eighth to eleventh century). Now, one of the effects of the Crusades – which lasted two centuries, from 1099 to 1270 – turns out to have been the reestablished dynamism of the Italian city-states (Genoa, Pisa, Venice) which broke the Islamic monopoly on Mediterranean commerce [1].

The mathematician and historian of science Ahmed Djebbar asked a fundamental question about Islam;s interrupted development: “Why was this brilliant civilization… unable to create at its core the conditions that should have prepared the advent of modern science, with its corollaries, that is to say, the scientific and technological revolution, followed by the industrial revolution?” [2] Instead of an answer, Djebbar proposed a synthesis of what has been said about it by researchers (notably C. Cahen and M. Lombard). To begin with, there is the effect of the internal crises that befell Islam following the Christian and Mongol offensives (twelfth and thirteenth centuries). Then there is the weakening of the social relationships in artisanal production. Finally, there was the fact that monopolies over certain resources changed hands – iron, wood and gold, for example – which precipitated the transfer of money from Islam to Europe. In such ways Islam lost control of international commerce, a control over which it never regained mastery. The new ship-owners opened up new horizons (through the discovery of America) and changed the trade routes (by way of new maritime maps that open access to Asia and Oceania by circumventing the territories of Islam).

Régis Morelon, the historian of Arab astronomy, in a discussion with me evoked the quantitative thesis developed by the Reverend Alvès de Sa, a most knowledgeable Brazilian who spent much time in the Dominican Institute for Arab Studies in Cairo. Alvès de Sa estimates that the great civilizations crumble after about five centuries. This periodization is applicable to Islam, whose classic phase can be said to have lasted from 750 to 1250. After this time, the culture’s expressions could possibly have continued its classic phase for another five hundred years, except that Islam was not be in possession of the means that would have reconciled it with the rupture of the Enlightenment and the technological and industrial revolution.

These explanations (and others as well) seem plausible, yet some part of the enigma remains. Is there in history some intervention that lies beyond human will? Could that be the part of providence? Or that of the Spirit, enigmatic in the ways in which it moves among the peoples, and visits nations and languages? Or is it possible to adapt to history the metaphor of the unconscious, to determine there those virtualities that escape reason and go beyond the panoply of causes that explain the rise and decline of civilizations? As far as Islam is concerned, the lightning expansion of its beginnings remains marked with its own enigmatic aspect just as much as its ineluctable decline.

What remains to be explained, or at least mentioned, is the series of defeats the Islamic world experienced when it tried to respond to the dawn of the twentieth century. At that moment Islam grew aware that a revolution whose terms escaped it was in the process of transforming the surface of the earth and the manner in which humans inhabit this earth. It is important to examine these failures, as from their smoldering ruins grows the ressentiment that excites and motivates the fundamentalist mind-set.

Let’s start with the failure of the modernization attempted in the nineteenth century. In this regard the Egyptian situation remains exemplary, a failure warranting further examination, because it carries in it the failure of the Europeanization that had grazed Arab thinking, the context of which I sketched above when I discussed women’s liberation. How are we to explain the failure of the modernization undertaken by Mohammed Ali during a reign of more than forty years (1805-1848)? We cannot avoid the feeling that there was nothing lacking in his politics: the constitution of a centralized state; the creation of monopolies of production; a modern army; a broadening of the national territory to the dimensions of empire (through expanding its frontier in he direction of Syria and Palestine, Arabia, and the upper Nile); the development of technicians and translators; the sending of students to Europe; the creation of pedagogical structures, of medical institutions, of factories and plants for the processing of raw materials; the introduction of industrial crops (cotton, sugar cane); the invention of an architectural style, a politics of great public works aiming at modernizing the infrastructure; the building of roads, canals, dams. This project lacked nothing except perhaps the method that would have connected the hierarchy of priorities and the necessary rigor in its execution.

During friendly exchanges with Roshdi Rashed, initiator and editor of the formidable History of Arab Sciences, I learned from this epistemologist and historian of mathematics that the principal reason for the Egyptian failure lies in the obstacles that the Europeans placed in the path of Mohammed Ali. In a time of European expansion, it was necessary to prevent by all means possible the emergence, so close to the old continent, of a new regional power that could become a rival on an already aggressive market protected by force of arms.

When I questioned the same friend about the later case of the Japanese success initiated in 1868 by the Meiji era, he reacts by affirming that the Japanese modernization happened without the Europeans being aware of it, or rather happened beyond their sphere of influence: the land of the Rising Sun would thus have benefited from its remoteness.[3] What’s more, although Japan was determined to modernize and westernize, it also kept intact its traditional structures of authority, as much in the circulation of decisions through the social hierarchy as in the know-how of its artisans and manual workers, who had kept the spirit of high precision that kept watch over their art. Japan’s industrialization was triggered by the initiative of the great old families with the cooperation of scrupulous trade associations.

In Egypt, however, these two conditions were absent: Mohammed Ali was a foreigner who had undone a social body that lacked historical roots (he had, for example, acquired the monopoly of agricultural lands). More importantly, the arts and crafts were in a state of decay: the ethic interiorized by the manual worker was no longer focused on corncern for well-wrought professional work. At the end of the eighteenth century the editors of The Description of Egypt already took note of the deterioration of artisanship and the rudimentary state of technology. They were impressed by the gap that separated contemporary copper work from an object such as a door of the Mameluk period, fashioned in the same matter. In the manual arts, the loss was incommensurable: what a difference between the perfect beauty of the works inherited from the fourteenth century and the neglected condition in both matter and form of the objects exchanged toward the end of the eighteenth! From one period to the next, the Egyptian hand-made object had already passed from an age of precision to one of slipshod work, a situation that did not conduce to the imitation of the products of engineering proposed by the industrial age, which demands high precision within a process that needs complex coordination between distinct complimentary tasks.

The only positive achievement that the reign of Mohammed Ali and his successors managed to leave to posterity are some of the political, economic and social rudiments that eventually permitted Egypt to constitute itself as a nation-state. Yet, having brought the people neither democratic freedom nor well-being, that development in its turn will experience a failure that will add to the previous failures. We will come back to this.

Let us look at a writer, sheikh Rifa’a Rafe’ Tahtawi (1801-1873) who is representative of his era [4]. He is an Azharian who lived in Paris for five years, acting as the imam of the students sent there by Mohammed Ali. Upon returning to Cairo, he headed the bureau of translation and he himself translated some twenty volumes from French. He clearly showed liberalism in his handling of juridical and political authorities, though they remained Islamic. He supported a sovereign who honored justice in the exercise of absolute power; he felt true empathy for the “protected minorities” (the Jewish and Christian dhimmis). He legitimized borrowings from foreign juridical systems, and recommended their integration into the body of the Sharia if general welfare demands it. This frame of mind was invaluable for the evolution of law.

The sheikh, however, remained pre-modern in his approach to European culture. He did not succeed in avoiding confusion and clearly prioritizing his documents, unable to distinguish between those works that were foundational and those that were adventitious. He was unable to discriminate between the different levels of texts: he privileged school manuals, and did not know that these were — like encyclopedias — an ersatz for science. In short, he gave the impression of being in a hurry, and of believing that a compendium is enough to master this or that art or technique. It is clear that he could not imagine the hard labor demanded by the incessant to-and-fro between fundamental research and applied science. [5]

With this remark I want to make explicit a symptom of the failure of Europeanization, even in its later phases, with authors we have already met, such as Abd ar-Raziq (in whom we noted a superficial knowledge of Hobbes and Locke through the use of school textbooks). Even if one invokes Taha Husayn, the most prestigious of “Occidentalists,” one may judge that to the very end of his career (in the seventies) he remained, as historian of literature, the pupil if not the disciple of Gustave Lanson, and as chronicler and critic, at best an imitator of Sainte-Beuve. He revealed himself as being a follower of older models and not as initiator opening a path in solitude. He never became an innovator who participates in the adventure of his contemporaries and works for the conquest of new terrain that would be hospitable to thought and word.

[1] But we must remember that the Crusades were preceded by the loss of Sicily (1063) and the fall of Toledo (1085).

[2] Djebbar, Une histoire de la science arabe, 56.

[3] In Japnase, the character Mei means “clear,” and Ji means “reign.” The two characters together give the image of a “clear reign,” or in French, “gouvernement éclairé,” an enlightened government. The victory of Japan over Russia in 1905 was perceived in Egypt as the sign that an oriental country can succeed in the double perspective corresponding to the program of the nationalists: to fight against the domination of Europe while at the same time adopting its civilization. For an Egyptian nationalist’s view on renovated Japan, see Mustafa Kamil book ash-Shams al-Mushriqa (“The sun that illuminates”) (Cairo,1906).

[4]  Translator’s note: see here & here

[5] Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi gives the eclectic list of his readings during his Parisian sojourn in his book translated as L’or de Paris, trans. Anouar Louca ( Paris, Sindbad, 1988) p. 224 ff; also available in English as An Imam in Paris : al-Tahtawi’s visit to France (1826-31) / Rifa‘ah al-Tahtawi;  translated byDaniel L Newman (London : Saqi, 2002). In his introduction the French translator recalls that al-Tahtawi’s assiduously read the Aperçu historique sur les moeurs et coutumes des nations, whose author was a certain Depping. It is in fact an installment of the Encyclopédie portative ou Résumé universel des sciences, des letters et des arts. One can see toward what illusory knowledge such reading can lead; how can such minor, concise, schematic publications lead him “by the shortest roads to the discovery of unsuspected societies,” as his translator claims?

[6] Ali ‘Abd ar-Raziq, Al-Islam wa uçul al-Hukm.

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (5)

February 23rd, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, History, Intellectuals, Islam, Politics, Translation


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(5th installment)


A Genealogy of Fundamentalism


To throw light on the genesis of Saudi Arabia and the formation of its ideology, it is necessary to go far back in the course of history. Before returning to the eighteenth century, one has to go as far back as the ninth. When I evoked above such a sequence of events from the Middle Ages, I suggested that I might try to illuminate further the figure of Ibn Hanbal, one of the protagonists who took part in the events in Baghdad during the first quarter of the ninth century.

As discussed earlier, Ibn Hanbal created one of the four law schools of Sunni Islam. His doctrine insists more than any other on a return to the purity of the letter and on the imitation of the salaf, the “Ancients of Medina”, which amounts to trying to apply to every person and to each century the idealized model of the Prophet’s city. What is omitted is that from its very beginning — only a few years after the Prophet’s death — Medina, which in the seventh century experienced the birth of the Prophet’s politics, was historically scarred by a bloody civil war. Three of the first four Caliphs (whom myth called the “well-guided Caliphs”) were assassinated. A great part of the history of Islam took place in the violence of civil war, and at regular intervals it has been rocked by factional disputes concerning legitimacy. Ibn Hanbal covered over the issues and enmities that had divided the early community by promoting the adversaries and enemies of those first days of discord to the hierarchy of the Ancients; he tried to reconcile the greatest number in order to win a large consensus favorable to rallying the community to the one and incontestable truth of the Qur’an and the tradition (the sunna). So as not to trouble the horizon of such a truth, he advised against recourse to personal opinion (al-ra’y) as recommended by other schools of law. He therefore recommended that the reading of the Qur’an be literal, and should avoid any allegorical exegesis.

Between the time of Ibn Hanbal (the early ninth century) and the eighteenth century, which saw the birth of Saudi ideology through the intermediary of Mohamed Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), there was the intermediary link constituted by Ibn Taymiyya (1263- 1328). This Syrian theologian was a radical disciple of Ibn Hanbal who lived through an uneasy period for Islam (this kind of radicalism, by the way, comes to the fore only when the entity to which one belongs is under major threat). Ibn Taymiyya lived during the time of the Mongol invasions, the sacking of Baghdad and the end of the Caliphate, with the perils posed by the Crusades barely overcome. This was an extremely dangerous, even apocalyptic situation for Islam, which felt threatened in its very being. Ibn Taymiyya, gifted with exceptional intelligence and energy, spent his life lying in wait for any protrusion that might mar the smooth surface of the letter, and he set himself the task of polishing that letter, by ridding it of the variety of meanings that decorated its profile. He indiscriminately hunted down the effects of philosophy on theological discourse and its contaminations by Greek thought; he fustigated any number of esoteric sects, decreeing them to be heretic by virtue of the privilege they accorded to hermeneutics; he denounced the theory and the experience of the uniqueness of Being as preached and lived by the Sufis, whom he considered far more dangerous than the Christians for a belief based on absolute monotheism. While, among the Christians, God became man on one single occasion (through the Incarnation), with the Sufis, the human disposition towards the reception of the divine is open and universal. In every day life this constitutes an attack on the idea of the One God. Ibn Taymiyya also denounced pilgrimages and visits to the tombs of saints by condemning every manner of intercession, identified with the detestable survivals of paganism and idolatry that deserved nothing but eradication [1].

Ibn Taymiyya also wrote a short book, a sort of manifesto, which, since its composition at the beginning of the fourteenth century, constitutes the breviary that delights the eyes and the hearts of each and every suitor of the pure letter. This book is called Politics in the Name of Divine Law for Establishing Good Order among the Affairs of the Shepherd and the Flock [2]. Its many small, popular one-hundred page editions, bear witness to this text’s wide diffusion. The book sets out the charter which links the prince and his subjects in their submission to the Sharia, Islamic law. The radicalism emanating from such a book totally fulfills the expectations of the fundamentalists. This text alone is worth an exhaustive analysis to help us delineate the symptoms of what I call the malady of Islam. I will, however, cite only a few characteristic passages, sufficient for the purposes of the book at hand.

To begin with, the author makes corporal punishment as set out by the Qur’an the very criterion of the law. These punishments, very few in number, involve stoning for adultery, flagellation for false accusation of adultery, flagellation of the wine drinker, the chopping off of the hand of the thief, chopping off of the hands and feet or crucifixion for highway banditry (depending on whether or not homicide is involved). These rudiments of a penal code are called hudud, the plural of hadd, a word which in the common vocabulary means “interval, obstacle, extremity, end, point or edge, limit, border.” They constitute God’s claim, the inalienable share of justice that belongs to God and that cannot be called into question or paid for in any other way. Ibn Taymiyya adduces an anecdote concerning the Prophet asked by a plaintiff who wanted to withdraw his accusation against a thief in order to spare the latter the amputation of his hand; the Prophet grows angry, arguing that nobody, not even he, can intervene in what he has called “God’s share”: the latter separates God and humans by an unbridgeable border, made tangible through the prescriptions which distribute bodily punishments according to the offence. The Prophet then told the plaintiff to think twice before accusing someone, because once the machinery of law has been put into motion, it is impossible to go back. It is that share of the law which is not negotiable, and with which neither rank nor fortune can interfere.

This vision, which locates the share of the law in the untouchable region of transcendence, seems to echo Kant’s perception of penal law. In the section devoted to “the right to punish and pardon” contained in the “Doctrine of law,” the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals,” he writes: “Penal law is a categorical imperative, and woe onto him who would slip into the serpentine rings of eudemonism in order to discover something which, by the advantage it promises him, would deliver him from punishment or diminish the latter.[3]” 

In Kant’s mind law is thus outside the world, beyond any empirical consideration or human feeling; here too one is inside a logic of purity that rids the law of any utilitarianism, that relieves it of any compromise: “For justice ceases to be justice as soon as it puts a price on itself.[4]” Let us remember that the passage in Kant leads to a defense of capital punishment and a refutation of the theses developed by one of his early critics, the Marquis di Beccaria, in his Dei delitti e delle pene (1764) [5].

But is it necessary to insist that a world separates Kant and Ibn Taymiyya? For the German philosopher, the purity and absoluteness of law aim at considering man as an end and not as a means. In his company, and in the context of the Enlightenment that is his, we remain inside the horizon of freedom. With the Syrian scholar, we do not leave the theocentrism that submits man to the order of the Divine. For the one the purity and absoluteness of law are attained by recourse to divine transcendence, for the other, law is its own foundation. This law will become, during the nineteen twenties, transcendence itself, if one follows the theories of the Kantian jurist Hans Kelsen[6].

Concerning the application of corporal punishment, many other schools of law show themselves much more adaptable. Out-of-court settlement is permitted by certain jurists for false accusations of adultery as well as for theft, for these are offenses that violate a human right. Active repentance is also taken into account in relation to theft and banditry. And recourse to shubba, the “resemblance” of the committed act to a licit act, can merit the accused a presumption of innocence. The jurist has set up many ruses to soften the approach of the hudud. Further, the establishment of proof is made very difficult. Finally, it is considered more praiseworthy to pass over in silence faults involving corporal punishment rather than adducing proofs[7]. In fact, there is a wide range of “liberal” procedures which Ibn Taymiyya does not mention.

[1] These polemics can be found in his Fatwas, all of which have been published under the auspices of the Saudi State in an edition of more than twenty volumes, the whole of which their Embassies offer as presents!  See also his epistles and controversies, assembled in Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu’at al-Rasa’il wa’l-Masa’il, edited by M. Rashid Ridha in five parts distributed over 2 volumes, Cairo, nd. Rashid Righa (1865-1935) is Mohammed ‘Abduh’s Syrian student, who deviated from his master’s horizon by given a more restrictive meaning to the salaf, which ‘Abduh had extended from the first Muslims in Medina to include the great traditional thinkers up to Ghazali (d. in 1111). Add to this his suspicions against sufism and you will understand the belated interest he developed in Ibn Taymiyya. As a consequence of this adherence to the Hanbalite doctor from Damascus, he repudiated an early text in which he assimilated Wahhabism to a bid’a, a “blamable innovation;” towards the end of his life he will shower praise on this same Wahhabism, just before the definitive triumph of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia (in 1932).

[2] Ibn Taymiyya, as-Siyasa ash-Shar’iyya fi Islah ar-Ra’i wa’r-Ra’iyna, Cairo, n.d.

[3] Immanuel Kant, La Metaphysique des moeurs, Doctrine du Droit, trad. A Philonenlo, (Vrin, Paris, 1993, p. 214).

[4] ibid. p. 215

[5] ibid. p. 217. Hegel also showed how such a purity resulted in revolutionary terror: see the section entitled “Absolute Freedom and Terror” in the Phenomenology of Mind, 599-610.

[6] Hans Kelsen, La théorie pure du droit, translated from the German by Charles Eisenmann, LGDI Bruylant, Paris-Bruxelles, 1999.

[7] Encyclopédie de l’Islam, art. Hadd, ed. By B. Carra de Vaux and J. Schacht.


In his siyasa,Ibn Taymiyya makes jihad, holy war, one of his privileged themes. He gives it the same importance as prayer, and seems to situate it above the other four canonical prescriptions (the confession of faith, fasting, charity to the poor and the pilgrimage). To indicate its high status, he associates it with the image that is meant to represent religion: a column with the base representing submission to God, the shaft representing prayer and the capital representing jihad. Thus he makes the fight against the infidel one of the two functions of the prince, who must devote his energies to the service of religion, by insuring on one hand the triumph of virtue inside the polis (through the rigor of corporeal punishments), and on the other hand by waging holy war beyond the borders.

At the end of his manifesto, Ibn Taymiyya concludes that by putting all the means of the empire (the financial and military capacities) in the service of religion, Islam will complete its religious edifice: it works toward the conquest of the benefits of the world here below and confirms those of the hereafter. He thinks of this as Islam’s achievement of the greatest possible political and religious victory; through this accomplishment such a community avoids a double peril: The first peril is produced by the two forms of separation between the political and the religious – political power that does not take religion into account. The second danger is religion that is only preoccupied with itself, divesting itself of power and grandeur to reduce itself to humility and compassion. This double peril is what happened to the two other religions, which grew impotent, unable to perfect the religious edifice.  They took two erroneous paths: the one that asserts religion without being able to put political, financial and military power at its disposal, and the one that does possess the power, money and military might but without any plan to put these in the service of the establishment or the strengthening of religion. The first path is the one of those “who will incur divine anger”; the second is the one of those who “went astray”[2]. The Jews take the first, the Christians the second of these paths.

We realize how much the consubstantiality of the political and the religious (which so many believe to belong to the essence of Islam) is just the elaboration of one theologian transformed into a warrior of his faith (I’ll return to this question later in the book). This consubstantiality is presented as an ideality (or utopia) and as a galvanizing slogan in the framework of an ideology that is now being reactivated by contemporary fundamentalists.

And I cannot pass over in silence how wrong Ibn Taymiyya turns out to be when we compare his words with the facts of his era and the historical memory that formed it. Thus when it comes to the Jews denied political and military power, many of the poems written by the Spanish Jew Yehuda Halevi (circa 1075- circa 1141) bear witness to that privation stressing the pathos of the situation:

The son of the slave robes me with terror
and throws his dart with a high hand…
I have been stripped of the light of love
And a proud foot presses on me like a yoke.

I suffer from the cruelty of his customs
In exile, in prison, in sadness, revolted
Without leader or minister of state.
The enemy approaches and the rock steps aside.[3]

A like dispossession– sign of exile – was represented in Christianity. Witness the allegory of the Synagogue shown under the south porch of Strasbourg cathedral (middle of the thirteenth century). The synagogue is represented as a beautiful lady with bandaged eyes (to signify that her gaze remains darkened to the new light emitted by the New Testament’s grace) and carrying a broken lance (to recall her exclusion from active statecraft and from the use of arms). But what about Christianity? On the same gothic porch, facing the synagogue, haughtily steps the allegory of the Church as a noble Lady proudly exhibiting the attributes of power (crown and intact lance) together with the ecclesiastical symbols. Ibn Taymiyya couldn’t help remembering the Crusades, a chapter barely closed when he was born, and which were nothing but the adaptation of jihad in Christianity. Either the Syrian theologian was well appraised of the latest episodes in the conflict between the pope and the emperor concerning the sharing of power between the temporal and spiritual realms, or he simply dismissed the words of the Gospels that separate the realm of God from that of Caesar.

It is in the long run that Ibn Taymiyya’s words turn out faulty. Taking into account historical evolution, every reasonable person will conclude that our theologian’s judgment is only contingent, even if it did take the long periplos of the centuries to prove him wrong. As far as I know, humanity’s greatest political achievement took place in Europe, originating from a Christian genealogy, even if it was formed precisely on the separation from religion, through the effects of an intellectual negation that neutralized the inherited belief. With the return of Israel to statehood (Yehuda Halevi’s desire come true more than eight centuries after its poetic expression), the Jews’ re-appropriation of the military has known its times of glory as well as its hours of decay. Today, it is the condition of Muslims that seems politically and militarily unhappy and marked by loss and defeat.

But history has more than one trick up its sleeve. It gives the lie yet again to Ibn Taymiyya while simultaneously derailing a stereotype dear to common sense. If I have to weigh the contributions of the one and the other on the scales of history, I would say without fear of error that the most precious legacy that may be ascribed to Islam consists in the profusion and intensity of its body of spiritual texts. This legacy owes as much to the ardor and intensity of its poetic and lyrical sayings as to the exalted tenor of its speculations. The success of Islam took place was achieved in the Sufi corpus – denounced by Ibn Taymiyya, whereas the defeat of Islam occurred in the political sphere – exactly where our theologian had situated the privileged space of his faith. In contrast, according to a current credo, only in Christianity (since it is far from the political) can the mystical experience come to its full realization, as Christianity is supposed to be the religion of love and not of law. And yet spiritual success recognizes itself as Islamic while political success recognizes itself as Christian. In truth the lesson of these observations is that the matter of history cannot be satisfied with an essentialist vision, either of the men or the ideas that create such a vision.

To come back to Ibn Taymiyya, in his day he represented only one opinion among many. Though his radicalism pleased the crowd, it worried his colleagues in theology and in law, and he was a source of dissension within the polis. Accordingly he endured trials and long years of imprisonment (which he devoted to writing). His literalism, his anthropomorphic, “corporist” dogmatism is derided by the traveler from Tangiers, Ibn Battuta (1304 – c. 1369) who claims to have met him:

In Damascus there lived among the great Hanbalite jurists one Taqi as-Din Ibn Taymiyya, a man held in great esteem and who could discourse on the various religious sciences, though he was slightly deranged [4]. The people of Damascus highly venerated this man who exhorted them from his pulpit. On one occasion he proffered words that the jurists contested, and the latter referred his case to al-Malik an-Nasir who ordered him to be taken to Cairo. (…) Al-Malik an-Nasir commanded that he be thrown in jail. Our man remained imprisoned for several years and in jail he wrote an exegesis of the Qur’an he entitled al-Bahr al-muhit (“The Ocean”) which ran to forty volumes…. Ibn Taymiyya’s mother went to complain to the sovereign and that is when al-Malik an-Nasir ordered him released from prison. But Ibn Taymiyya continued to behave the same way. I was in Damascus at that time and one Friday I witnessed one of his exhortations from the mosque’s high chair. Among other things he said: “God descends toward the sky from the world here below as I now descend,” and he took one step down from the high chair. A malekite jurist called Ibn as-Zahra confronted him and contested what he had said. The crowd rose up and beat the jurist with fists and sandals so hard that his turban fell off, revealing a silken skullcap [5]. The people criticized that piece of hairdress… (Ibn Taymiyya was then taken to the Hanbalites’ judge, or kadi)… who had him imprisoned and flogged… The condemned man died in jail [6].

Such testimony shows the theologian as excited agitator, rousing the crowds, scandalizing his Sunni peers, even those who belonged to his – the Hanbalite – legal school. His attitude and provocation exasperated the good will of the political authority. He represents an ideological voice that embarrasses the state power without being unanimously backed by the scholars. On the other hand it would seem that he had the vox populi behind him, the voice of the people who seem to put up with simplifications and prefer the effortless adhesion to the apparent sense of the letter. It is that voice – bellicose, theatrical – that will be the voice listened to centuries on by the firebrands of fundamentalism. And above all, by the founder of Wahhabism.

[1] “Submission” is the primary meaning of the word islam, in conformity with the instinct of natural religion; it is the return to this first principle of adoration that characterizes Islam as a religion.

[2] Two expressions taken from the last verse of the Qur’an’s opening Sura, called al-Fatiha. The interpretation proposed here by Ibn Taymiyya, which identifies the Jews with “those who (reap) divine anger” and the Christians with those who have “lost the way,” is traditional, though not shared by all.

[3] Yehuda Halevi, Le Diwan, trans. Into French by Y. Arroche and J.G. Valensi (Montpellier, Editions de l’Eclat, 1988. p. 91-93)

[4] The Arab text says: “illa anna fi ‘aqlihi shay’un,” literally “but something was perturbing his mind.” [Translator’s addendum: Meddeb suggests that this Arabic expression, translated “into good French, means precisely ‘mais il avait un grain’” –  which could be Englished as “but there was a grain of folly in him.”]

[5] According to tradition, men are not supposed to wear silk.

[6] Ibn Battuta, Voyages et périples, in Voyages Arabes (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1995), p. 454-455.


Mohamed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) is at the origin of the ideological strain that will be named Wahhabism for him. In the very interior of the Arabian Peninsula he preached a cross between the theory of Ibn Hanbal and that of Ibn Taymiyya. In his native Nejd, he established ties with the tribe of the Saud which strove to take over power by conquering the deserts of Arabia. Thus was launched – at the very heart of the eighteenth century and contemporaneous with the European Enlightenment – the puritanical movement that brought forth today’s Saudi Arabia two centuries later.

Through the contemporaneity of these two phenomena belonging to very separate mental spaces, a new era for the world opens. Since that time, the differential between co-existing human cultural modes has increased rapidly: we will find peoples living in the same century who illustrate the multiple states that humanity has known, from the immemorial pre-Neolithic to the child engendered by the latest technological revolution. The Marquis de Sade’s reaction to the events in Arabia can be situated in the framework of this phenomenon which thereafter will be ever more exacerbated, until at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it manifests itself in the cohabitation on this single planet of that immemorial being and of the cosmonaut setting off to conquer space. Here is how a post-religious man at the end of the eighteenth century judges, in his new wisdom, his fellow man who is regressing towards the all-religious:

And once again wars of religions are ready to devastate Europe. Boheman, leader and agent of a new sect of “purified” Christianity, has just been arrested in Sweden, and the most disastrous plans were found among his papers. The sect to which he belonged is said to want nothing less than to render itself master of all the potentates of Europe and their subjects[1]. In Arabia new sectarians are emerging and want to purify the religion of Mahomet. In China even worse troubles, still and always motivated by religion, are tearing apart the inside of that vast empire. As always it is gods that are the cause of all ills[2].

The words are by the divine marquis, who had understood the danger of that sect at the very moment of its emergence. Note Sade’s discernment in associating this peril of purification not just with Islam: he makes it into a universal problem that poses its threat as soon as a zealot tries to create a revolutionary and insurrectional movement in the name of the letter, whatever the specific religion may be.  To demand that human affairs be conducted in the name of God can only engender fanatics and their attendant disasters.

If we examine Ibn Abd al-Wahhab as a doctrinaire writer (by reading, for example, his most famous book, Kitab at-Tawhid, “The Book of the Unicity of God”) we will discover a scribe without an ounce of originality. We don’t even dare give him the status of thinker. The book I have just mentioned is stuffed with citations, revealing its author as a copyist more than a creator. His numerous other briefer works confirm that his short breath doesn’t bestow the dignity of a genre on the short form. The pages he has covered with writing confirm his obedience to strict Hanbalite thinking. He seems to be even more rigid than the founding master. Ibn Hanbal, as it turns out, revealed himself to as rather tolerant on the question of excommunication; Ibn Taymiyya himself acknowledged that the Baghdadi scholar was extremely exigent in relation to cultural obligations (the ‘ibadat) but rather liberal when it comes to matters of custom (the ‘adat).

In the wake of this remark one can see how the cult of the saints could be tolerated by Ibn Hanbal, even if in his day the brotherhoods had not yet been constituted. On that question, as on many others, we witness an increase in the scale of intensity between the three links: we go from the relative tolerance of the master from Baghdad (ninth century) via the radical critique (though it remains theoretical) by the theologian from Damascus (ninth century) to the violent actions and the destructions of century-old mausoleums by the Arabian disciple (eighteenth century). In fact, there isn’t a single saint’s tomb left in all of Arabia today, except for the Prophet’s in Medina[3]. To safeguard his faith, the Wahhabite does not hesitate to destroy the vestiges of civilization with the sole aim of preventing the redoubtable confrontation of the myth he propagates with actual historical documents.

An entire world separates the two early masters from Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, though he claims to follow their teachings. It is important to recall that Ibn Hanbal also had a Sufi lineage that included some great masters. Certain concepts he introduced are not incompatible with inner experience – for example, the concepts of tafwidh (to trust to God in what concerns the ultimate mystery) and of taslim (conscious surrender to the word of God and his prophet in one’s acts as well as in one’s words). Such dispositions can favor the fideism of an Ansari (1006-1089), the great spiritual master from Herat, whom I remember with deep emotion at this very moment when bombs are raining on what remains of his beautiful city[4]. This master combined Hanbalite rigor with the incandescence of inner experience as manifested in the fireworks of his Qur’anic meditations[5]. Here is the fragment of Qur’anic verse that captured his gaze and converted him to Sufism: “Those who believe are the most ardent in their love for God”[6].

Here is the result of his meditations, one of his “Cries from the Heart”: “My God! I have water in the head and fire in the heart; inside I feel pleasure, outside I feel desire. I have foundered in an ocean without shores; there is a pain in my soul for which there is no remedy. My gaze fell on something that no language can describe.[7]”

Ibn Taymiyya shows exceptional constructive abilities when he turns away from invectives and anathema. His Refutation of the Logicians, a work full of subtleties, offers perspectives that allow its thought to throw light on certain zones defined by modern logic[8]. We need to point out some of the nuances that make for the complexity of both Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya’s work, if only to distinguish it from that of their rough disciple from the Nejd, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, whose work, given its poverty, could well have been consigned to oblivion.

The mediocrity and doctrinal illegitimacy of ‘Abd al-Wahhab have often been denounced, at times by unknown or very ordinary sheikhs who thought themselves more competent than he in matters of traditional sciences and gave themselves permission to condemn him.  This is the case of Dawud al-Baghdadi, who demolishes the doctrine of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in a booklet containing two refutations of Wahhabism (these treatises were completed in 1293 AH / 1875 CE and they were published in Istanbul in 1305 AH / 1887 CE)[9]. Al-Baghdadi recalls a fatwa that had been argued in 1195 AH. /1780 CE by a contemporary of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the Shafiite sheikh Mohamed Ibn Sulayman al-Madani. The latter had received a query submitted to him accusing Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab of having opened the road to ignorance and of having authorized uncultivated men to extinguish divine light. How could such a personage pretend to the interpretation of the dogma (al-Ijtihad) when he did not fulfill the conditions that scholarly tradition demanded of anyone exercising this art? Doesn’t he need to submit himself to the scholars instead of continuing to attribute the imamate (Prophethood) to himself and to exhort the community to follow in the path he is laying out? Why does he call anyone who contradicts him impious and demand his death?[10]

Suppose, Baghdadi said, that the conditions of Ijtihad were gathered in one person who would by, his own wits, elaborate a doctrine. Does that mean that he has to impose it on all and everyone, when the doctrinal domain is vast and the roads through it multiple, as established by the hermeneutic tradition, and corroborated by the scholars?[11] The critic asked for elucidations concerning Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s prohibitions of visits to the tombs of the saints, of vows, intercessions, offerings, sacrifice, the invocation of the prophet or of one of his companions in moments of distress, petitions addressed to someone else than God. The unknown querent who formulated this juridical consultation is also asking himself by what right the man from Nejd accuses the believer who makes use of such practices of being a renegade.  The Shafiite scholar applies himself to the task of deconstructing one after the other all the prohibitions invented by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. His very technical answers rely on some of the greatest names in Islamic theology, chosen among the most orthodox and exoteric Sunnites[12]. He ends up by revealing the author of those prohibitions as an illegitimate pretender to science, an ignorant sectarian, whose prescriptions wreck the complex edifice of law built up over the centuries[13].

[1] This Boheman is sort of a European equivalent of today’s bin Laden.

[2] D.A.F. Sade, Cahiers personnels, (Oeuvres Completes, XIII, JJ Pauvert, Paris, 1966) p. 9-10.

[3]  My friend, the poet Salah Stétié, has told me that when visiting Arabia he learned that whenever the smallest archeological item relating to the history of early Islam and even to later Islamic periods is discovered, it is immediately covered in concrete.

[4] Concerning the Hanbalism the master from Herat was an adept of, see the preface by his translator, Serge de Laugier de Beaurecueil, in: Ansari, Chemin de Dieu, p. 24-30 (Paris Sindbad, 1985. [translator’s note: Also see A. G. Ravan Farhadi, Abdullah Ansari of Herat: An Early Sufi Master (London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon Sufi Series, 1996).]

[5] He was a redoubtable polemicist against intellectualist theologians.

[6] Qur’an, II, 165

[7] Ansari, Cris du Coeur, translated by Serge de Laugier de Beaurecueil (Sindbad, Paris, 1988) p. 82.

[8] Ibn Taymiyya, Ar-Radd ‘alâ al-Mantiqiyyîn (Bombay, 1949).

[9]  Dawud al-Baghdadi, al-Mihna al-Wahbiyya fi Radd al-Wahhabiyya, followed by Ashaddal-Jihad fi Ibt’al Da’wa al-Ijtihad, [1305 A.H. /1887 C.E.), (reprint Istanbul: Ikhlas Vkfi Yayinidir, 1986.)

[10] The Arab expression Haddara dammahu means exactly: “to suffer, to permit that the blood of a man be spilled without the author of that act being susceptible to being pursued” (used for a prince or a judge). Fundamentalists use this expression a lot, which constitutes a call for murder exonerating in advance the one who executes it.

[11] al-Baghdadi, al-Mihna al-Wahbiyya fi Radd al-Wahhabiyya, p. 40-41.

[12] Such as the Cordoban zhahirite Ibn Hazm (994-1063) and Ibn Qudama (1147-1223), the Hanbalite from Jerusalem.

[13] al-Baghdadi, al-Mihna al-Wahbiyya fi Radd al-Wahhabiyya, p. 41-44.

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A Visit to Mahmoud Darwish’s Grave

February 22nd, 2015 · Arab Culture, Palestine, Poetry

IMG_2018 copyOn a recent trip to Ramallah, we went to pay homage at Mahmood Darwish’s grave.  It is no doubt the most amazing poet’s grave (plus museum) I’ve visited — fascinating to see the existence of Palestine defined & buttressed by a poet’s tomb. Some fifty young high school girls were visiting at the same time — cheerful, chattering, awe-struck yet playful. The museum was breathtaking — from the recreation of Darwish’s writing room, to his collection of fountain-pens (we share a liking for Pelikan & Montblanc), from his coffee maker (reread the early pages of his Memory for Forgetfulness) to his compact radio (it strangely turns out I have the same one — short-wave time & space machine for travelers & exilees to access far-away countries or just the home country at night). And the final, saddest memento mori: the boarding pass for his last flight to Houston where he would die in hospital. All the while his voice spoke quietly from the corner where videos of his readings where playing. Here some of the photos Nicole & I took:




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Uri Avnery: Anti-What?

February 21st, 2015 · Israel


ANTI-SEMITISM is on the rise. All over Europe it is raising its ugly head. Jews are in danger everywhere. They must make haste and come home to Israel before it is too late.

True? Untrue?


PRACTICALLY ALL the alarming incidents which have taken place in Europe recently – especially in Paris and Copenhagen – in which Jews were killed or attacked – had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. 

All these outrages were conducted by young Muslims, mostly of Arab descent. They were part of the ongoing war between Israelis and Arabs that has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. They are not descended from the pogrom in Kishinev and not related to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In theory, Arab anti-Semitism is an oxymoron, since Arabs are Semites. Indeed, Arabs may be more Semitic then Jews, because Jews have mingled for many centuries with Gentiles.

But, of course, the German publicist Wilhelm Marr, who probably invented the term Antisemitismus in 1880 (after inventing the term Semitismus seven years earlier) never met an Arab in his life. For him the only Semites were Jews, and his crusade was solely against them.

(Adolf Hitler, who took his racism seriously, applied it to all Semites. He could not stand Arabs either.  Contrary to legend, he disliked the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had fled to Germany. After meeting him once for a photo-opportunity arranged by the Nazi propaganda machine, he never agreed to meet him again.)

SO WHY do young Muslims in Europe shoot Jews, after killing cartoonists who have insulted The Prophet?

Experts say that the basic reason is their profound hatred for their host countries, in which they feel (quite rightly) that they are despised, humiliated and discriminated against. In countries like France, Belgium, Denmark and many others, their violent rage needs an outlet.

But why the Jews?

There are at least two main reasons:

The first is local. French Muslims are mostly immigrants from North Africa. During the desperate struggle for Algerian independence, almost all the Algerian Jews sided with the colonialist regime against the local freedom fighters. When all Jews and many Arabs emigrated from Algeria to France, they brought their fight with them. Since they now live side by side  in the crowded ghettos around Paris and elsewhere, their mutual hatred lives on and often leads to violence.

The second reason is the ongoing Arab-Zionist conflict, which started with the mass immigration of Jews to Arab Palestine, continued with the long list of wars and is now in full bloom. Practically every Arab in the world, and most Muslims are emotionally involved in the conflict.

But what have French Jews to do with that far-away conflict? Everything.

When Binyamin Netanyahu does not miss an opportunity to declare that he represents all the Jews in the world, he makes all the world’s Jews responsible for Israeli policies and actions. 

When Jewish institutions in France, the US and everywhere totally and uncritically identify with the policies and operations of Israel, such as the recent Gaza war, they turn themselves voluntarily into potential victims of revenge actions.  The French Jewish leadership, CRIF, did so just now.

Neither of these reasons has anything to do with anti-Semitism.

ANTI-SEMITISM is an integral part of European culture.

Many theories have been put forward to explain this totally illogical phenomenon, which borders on a collective mental disease.

My own preferred theory is religious. All over Europe, and now also in the Americas, Christian children in their formative years hear the stories of the New Testament. They learn that a Jewish mob was shouting for the blood of Jesus, the gentle and mild preacher, while the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilatus, was desperately trying to save his life. The Roman is depicted as a humane, likeable person, while the Jews are seen as a vile, despicable mob.

This story cannot be true. Roman rulers all over the Empire used to crucify potential troublemakers. The behavior of the Jewish authorities in the story does not conform to Jewish law. But the New Testament story, written long after the death of Jesus (whose real Hebrew name was Jeshua), was aimed at the Roman audience the Christians were trying to convert, in hot competition with the Jewish missionaries.

Also, the early Christians were a small, persecuted sect in Jewish Jerusalem, and their grudge lives on to this very day.

The picture of the evil Jews crying out for the death of Jesus is unconsciously imprinted in the minds of the Christian multitudes and has inspired Jew-hatred in every new generation. The results were slaughter, mass-expulsions, inquisition, persecution in every form, pogroms, and finally the Holocaust.

THERE has never been anything like this in Muslim history.

The Prophet had some small wars with neighboring Jewish tribes, but the Koran contains strict instructions on how to deal with Jews and Christians, the People of the Book. They had to be treated fairly and were exempted from military duty in return for a poll tax. Throughout the ages there were some rare anti-Jewish (and anti-Christian) outbreaks here and there, but Jews in Muslim lands fared incomparably better than in Christian ones.

If this had not been so, there would have been no “Golden Age” of Muslim-Jewish cultural symbiosis in medieval Spain. It would have been impossible for the Muslim Ottoman empire to accept and absorb almost all the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from medieval Spain, driven out by their Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella. The outstanding Jewish religious thinker, Moses Maimonides (the “Rambam”) could not have become the personal physician and adviser of the outstanding Muslim sultan, Salah-al-Din al-Ayubi (Saladin).

The present conflict started as a clash between two national movements, Jewish Zionism and secular Arab nationalism, and had only slight religious overtones. As my friends and I have warned many times, it is now turning into a religious conflict – a calamity with potentially grievous consequences.

Nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

SO WHY does the entire Israeli propaganda machine, including all Israeli media, insist that Europe is experiencing a catastrophic rise of anti-Semitism? In order to call upon European Jews to come to Israel (in Zionist terminology: “make Aliya”).

For a Zionist true believer, every Jew’s arrival in Israel is an ideological victory. Never mind that once in Israel, new immigrants – especially from countries like Ethiopia and Ukraine – are neglected.

As I have frequently quoted: “Israelis like immigration but don’t like immigrants”.

In the wake of the recent events in Paris and Copenhagen, Binyamin Netanyahu has publicly called upon French and Danish Jews to pack up and come at once to Israel for their own safety. The prime ministers of both countries have furiously protested against these calls, which insinuate that they are unable or unwilling to protect their own citizens. I suppose that no leader likes a foreign politician to call upon his citizens to leave.

There is something grotesque in this call: as the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz remarked, Israel is the only place in the world where Jewish lives are in constant danger. With a war every few years and violent incidents almost every day, he had a point.

But in the wake of the dramatic events, many “French” Jews – originally from North Africa – may be induced to leave France. They may not all come to Israel. The US, French Canada and Australia offer tempting alternatives.

There are many good reasons for a Jew to come to Israel: a mild climate, the Hebrew language, living among fellow Jews, and what not. But running away from anti-Semites is not one of them. 

IS THERE real anti-Semitism in Europe? I assume that there is.

In many European countries there are old and new super-nationalist groups, who try to attract the masses by hatred of the Other. Jews are the Others par excellence (along with Gypsies/Roma). An ethno-religious group dispersed in many countries, belonging and not belonging to their host countries, with foreign – and therefore sinister – beliefs and rituals. All the European nationalist movements which sprang up in the 19th and 20th centuries were more or less anti-Semitic.

Jews have always been, and still are, the ideal scapegoat for the European poor. It was the German (non-Jewish) socialist August Bebel who said that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of the stupid guys”.

With frequent economic slumps and a widening gap between the local poor and the multinational super-rich, the need for scapegoats is rising. But I do not believe that these marginal groups, even if some of them are not so marginal anymore, constitute a real anti-Semitic surge.

Be that as it may, the outrages in Paris and Copenhagen have nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

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Just out from La Otra: Mawqif by PJ + Video

February 20th, 2015 · Uncategorized

Coming Monday the serialization of Abdelwabab Meddeb’s The Malady of Islam will continue. Meanwhile, a station break:


mawqif Título: Mawqif
Antólogo: Pierre Joris
Contenido: Poesía luxemburguesa
Colección: Temblor de cielo
Idioma: Español
Editorial: La Otra y Instituto de Cultura de Durango, Conaculta
Páginas: 288
Tamaño: 14 x 21 cm.
Tipo de Encuadernación: Rústico
Año: 2013
Precio: Moneda nacional 250 pesos, en el extranjero 25 dls.
I SBN: 978-607-8167-37-1
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Pierre Joris dejó Luxemburgo a los diecinueve años y desde entonces vivió en Gran Bretaña, África del Norte, Francia y en los Estados Unidos. Desde 1992 enseña cursos de poética en la universidad del estado de Nueva York (SUNY at Albany). Ha publicado numerosos libros de poesía, entre ellos Poasis: Selected Poems 1986-1999, y varias antologías (entre las más recientes Poems for the Millennium, volumen 1 y 2, A University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry), que realizó en colaboración con Jerome Rothenberg. Joris también cuenta con una vasta obra como traductor, la cual incluye traducciones de libros de Abdelwahab Meddeb, Paul Celan, Maurice Blanchot, Edmond Jabès, Habib Tengour, Tchicaya U’Tamsi y Kurt Schwitters, entre otros. Joris posee la rara cualidad de poner en diálogo por lo menos cuatro culturas y otras tantas lenguas, no sólo a partir de sus traducciones del francés y del alemán al inglés, sino también de lo que él ha dado en llamar una poética de lo nómade.

Joseph Mulligan

Publicado en Colección Temblor de Cielo, Libros de La Otra

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