Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (4)


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(4th installment)


We have to acknowledge the flourishing of Islamic Fundamentalism and the global dimension it assumed. The event to which we were witnesses on September 11 2001 was made possible only by the mutation the Western model has gone through: it has gone from European to American.

It is clear now that the European model in which I grew up, the one that arose from the French Enlightenment and formed me through a Franco-Arabic education, this model no longer holds any attraction. I felt the shock of that when the question of the veil, so highly symbolic in Europe, came up. During my childhood in the fifties, in that citadel of Islam that is the Medina of Tunis, I witnessed the unveiling of women in the name of Westernization and modernity. This involved the wives, daughters and sisters of the scholars of the Law who were professing in the thousand-year-old theological University of the Zitouna (one of the three most important ones in Islam, after the Kairaouine in Fez and Al-Azhar in Cairo). 

This unveiling of the women in the conservative milieu in which I was brought up was not just the result of Bourguiba’s emancipatory action in Tunisia. Even in the more conservative Moroccan context, king Mohammed V had himself unveiled his daughters. It was in the air, at that time, and not only because of the Maghreb’s close connection with France. Throughout the Arab world, the unveiling of women was a process that had begun at the end of the nineteenth century, following Qasim Amin’s (1865-1908) pamphlet on the subjection of women, and the veil as sign of that servitude [1]. Inspired by the liberal interpretation of the Qur’an proposed by the Shaykh Mohammed ‘Abduh (1849-1905), Qasim Amin had written his Tahrir al-Mar’a (“The liberation of Woman”)[2]. His ideas had mobilized the women themselves in a process that led the latter to create the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1925. It’s president, Hoda Sha’rawi rejected the veil officially in 1926 [3]. Qasim Amin’s pamphlet does not propose a complete liberation of women; thus in relation to the veil, for example, his proposal is for a practical veil that complies with Qur’anic recommendations without hindering the women’s movements or limiting their participation in civic activities. Most importantly he insists that the oppression of women does not come from Islam itself but from usage and customs. This appreciation is in accord with the anthropologist Germaine Tillion who, based on fieldwork in the Islamic terrain of the Aures mountains, situated women’s condition of servitude inside a wider structure. Concerning women and the veil, she linked “the cloistering of women in the whole Mediterranean basin to the evolution, the interminable degradation of tribal society.” She also suggested “reasons why this humiliating position was so often, and wrongly, attributed to Islam…”[4].

The movement that summoned women to end their cloistering has to be inscribed in a cultural context engaged in the process of Westernization which during the last quarter of the nineteenth century even marked the thought and action of the theologians. This is the case for example of Shaykh Mohammed ‘Abduh, the master of salafism, which invoked simultaneously modernization and a return to the salaf, those ancient pious ones of early Islam [5]. It is a kind of fundamentalism, however, to be distinguished from the “integrism” that is dominant today [6]. The Sheikh was simultaneously against European hegemony and against local despotism; he tried to adapt the contributions of Western Civilization as closely as possible to the basic tenets of Islam. He read the Treatise on Ethics by the hellenizing philosopher Miskawayh (932-1030) and meditated on the rise and fall of states and civilizations by confronting the cyclical and crepuscular thought of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) with that of the conservative historian François Guizot (1787-1874)[7].

Like his master Afghani (1839-1897),Mohammed ‘Abduh’s thinking revolves around the decadence of his civilization. To remedy the latter, he took up the theses that Afghani had developed in his controversy with Renan: Islam is not incompatible with the scientific spirit; all that is needed is to find again the material conditions of greatness that will allow the city of Islam to reconnect with scientific invention [8]. Therefore Mohammed ‘Abduh admitted the necessity of change. But the condition for such a change depends on respect for the principles of Islam. His open-mindedness leads him to interweave his ideas with notions borrowed from Auguste Comte’s positivism. ‘Abduh strained his ingenuity to find at the core of Islam the elements of a rational religion that would create or permit access to modernity. He called for the creation of an elite whose discourse was to be the interpretation of Islam in that direction [9].

I call these known facts to mind to give an overview of the climate of European Westernization that Arab thought underwent from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1950s.  It is in this atmosphere that the feminist movement of the period between the two World Wars flowered. This period also saw the creation in Cairo of a modern university marked by the philological positivism that Taha Husayn (1900-1972), an Azharian educated at the Sorbonne, wanted to apply to the Arab poetry of the pre-Islamic period. A few seeds were sown, despite the storm this book created [10]. The conservative scholars knew that if they let historicity take hold of the corpus of pre-Islamic literature, they would no longer be able to keep doubt from closing in on the Qur’anic text. But as early as 1937, Taha Husayn, using his characteristically biting critical irony, wrote an essay (The Future of Culture in Egypt) in which he excoriates the local mandarins who confuse creative adventure with administrative compunction, and chides the local celebrities for their reductive and small-minded vision of Egyptian identity by reminding them of the Mediterranean and Hellenic scope of the ground upon which they walk. In this book, Taha Husayn called upon his people to Europeanize themselves in all their manners of thinking and being, with the sole proviso of preserving their religion.

This process of Europeanization manifests itself in another work in Arabic: Al-Islam wa uçul al-Hukm (Islam and the Foundation of the Power), written by another Azharian, Shaykh Ali Abd ar-Raziq (1888-1966), who continued his education in Oxford [12]. He attacked the myth of the Caliphate and showed the latter’s merely relative effectiveness in history, as well as its obsolete character. He wrote his book in the wake of the definitive abolition of the Caliphate under all its forms (by Kemal Atatürk in 1924.) The disappearance of this venerable institution was not considered a loss by ‘Abd ar-Raziq, who recommended that Muslims rethink their political structures by taking into account historical evolution and the contributions of other nations. Evoking Hobbes and Locke (without being directly influenced by them), our enlightened Shaykh went so far as to question the elaboration of political principles in Islam [13]. Evidently such opinions gave rise to lively polemics. And it is not untimely to recall that in the TV clip aired by the Qatar-based channel Al-Jazeera on October 7 2001, Osama bin Laden implicitly brought up the abolition of the Caliphate when he claimed that it was eighty years now that the misery, the dispossession, the fact of being orphaned had befallen the Islamic subject — a condition against which Muslims now had to rise [14].

[1] Qasim Amin (1865-1908) cf. here and here

[2]  see here.

[3] Hoda Shaarawi was born in Minya in 1879 and grew up in Cairo. The daughter of a wealthy and respected provincial administrator from Upper Egypt, she was, as all aristocratic young girls, educated at home. Her memoirs tell of her life as one of the last upper-class Egyptian women in the segregated world of the harem. She was married against her wishes at the age of 13 to a cousin who was many years older. A year later she separated from her husband for a period of seven years. During these years, Hoda Shaarawi gradually came ‘to an awareness of the constraints imposed upon women in Egypt and devoted the rest of her life to fight for women’s independence and the feminist cause. With her new-found freedom she took an increasingly militant stand in the harem and became engaged in Egypt’s nationalist struggle which culminated in independence in 1922. Her daring act of defiance in unveiling herself at Cairo railway station in 1923 signaled the end of the harem years for herself, and the beginning of the end for others. Hoda Shaarawi was the head of the Egyptian Feminist Union until her death on August 12, 1947. She went into history as the liberator of Egyptian women. 

[4] Germaine Tillion, The Republic of Cousins: Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society translated by Quintin Hoare, Prometheus Books, 2000. (page 18 in French edition)

[5] A concept already adapted by Averroës, as we saw above, in chapter 6.

[6] Despite the Western and Christian connotations that are part of the invention of these two neologisms (fundamentalism refers to a conservative current in American Protestantism between 1900 and 1920; “integrism” was originally applied to the position of those Catholics who refused to accept the reforms instituted by the Vatican or elaborated within the Church, from the nineteen fifties to the eighties), despite these connotations, I think that “fundamentalism” adapts itself well to the spirit of salafism whose emulators wanted to modernize Islam while being wary of keeping its “foundation” intact (via a return to the utopia of its origins); and that “integrism” is accurately applied to those movements initiated since the 1930s by the Muslim Brotherhood, and including all contemporary Islamicist and terrorist deviations. By using the latter, we also have in mind the polysemy of the word “integrity”: that state of something that has remained intact, also the old sense of “virtue,” complete purity. If “integrity” is qualitative, “integrality” is quantitative: state of a complete thing. To apply a prescription “dans son integralité” means to do it totally; the Islamist is an “integrist” when he preaches the “integrity” of the law, and imposes its application in its integrality: this abolishes all alterity and installs a form of being that adds a new name to the catalogue of totalitarianisms that have wrecked the century. Between the two names (fundamentalism and integrism), there is a difference of intensity: coercion transforms itself into terror and struggle into war. On the other hand, I hesitate to identify integrism with islamicism, because that is what Islam was called until Renan and beyond (by using the same morphological schemata that gives “christianisme”[Trans. Note: i.e. the French word for “Christianity”]). But it is acceptable to designate the integrists as “islamists”, as that name distinguishes them from the Muslims (muslimun) and rhymes well with how they are designated in Arabic today (islamiyun). It is further useful to recall that that word had a more general sense: in medieval Arabic, it meant the “followers of Islam”; al-‘Ash’ari (873-935) uses it thus in the title of his famous book Maqalat al-Islamiyyin, which his German editor Hellmut Ritter translates as “Die dogmatischen Lehren der Anhänger des Islam” (“The dogmatic teachings of the followers of Islam.”, 3rd edition, Wiesbaden, 1980.

[7] Translated from Arabic into French by Mohammed Arkoun, Institut Français in Damascus, 2nd ed., 1988. An English version of Ibn Miskawayh’s  Tahdhib al-akhlaq ( ed. C. Zurayk, Beirut: American University of Beirut Centennial Publications, 1966) was published as, The Refinement of Character, translated by C. Zurayk Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1968. (A summary of Ibn Miskawayh’s ethical system. This work is also known as Taharat al-a’raq (Purity of Dispositions). See also here.

[8] Ernest Renan, L’islamisme et la Science, Paris 1883, reprinted in Discours et Conférences, p. 375-409, 6th edition, Calman-Lévy, Paris, 1919. Essay available online in English, here.

[9] Albert Hourani, Islam in European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). This work remains the best synthesis of the westernization of Arab thought between 1850 and 1950.

[10] Taha Husayn, Fi ash-Shi’r al-Jahili, Cairo 1926 (reprinted in 1991 – no English translation as far as I can make out PJ).

11] Taha Husayn, Mustaqbal al-thaqafah fi Misr, Cairo, 1938. The Future of Culture in Egypt, translated by Sidney Glazer, Octagon Books, 1975.

[12] Ali Abd ar-Raziq, Al-Islam wa uçul al-Hukm, Cairo 1926. French translation by Abdou Filali Ansari, L’Islam et les fondements du pouvoir, La Découverte, Paris, 1994.

[13] Ibid. p. 62. The French translator omits to say that the author cites these philosophers only by reference to the text book by Arthur Kenyon Roger, A Student’s History of Philosophy (New York, Macmillan 1960) pp. 242-250. This is specified by the author in a footnote (cf. the Arab text, p. 19, Tunis edition, 1999). It is worth noting this detail because it signals the limit of the Westernization of the minds, which often occurs via textbooks and not through the meditation on and interiorization of the founding texts. Notably, however, Shaykh Abd ar-Raziq points the reader (on p. 66 of the French translation) to the monograph by Thomas Arnold, The Caliphate (Oxford 1924). By calling his colleague a “great scholar,” the sheikh does not participate in the suspicion that Westernism will later experience.

[14] [Note added by PJ 2/18/15]. Given developments since AW wrote this book in the wake of 9/11, and especially the recent emergence of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al Shams) and the latter’s claim to be the new incarnation of the Caliphate, I would like to point the reader to a essay by Graeme Wood in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, called “What is ISIS really?” and which deals very cogently with the question of the Caliphate (besides much else). A critical response to Wood’s article can be found here.


Through the implication of that televised message of October 7 2001, we can see how very much things have changed in the land of Islam. We have moved from the deconstruction of myths to their restoration. And we have gone from the unveiling of women to their re-veiling. In short, we have changed eras. The world in its Westernization has gone from the European to the American mode. This formulation, as I repeat it here, will become clearer in the following pages.

I must confess that I felt something like a shock when the re-veiling of women came back to haunt me in one of the strongholds of freedom and Western culture, Paris, France. I had thought that we were engaged in an irreversible process, in which the subjects of the territories of Islam would also participate. Later, after spending more time in the Arab Orient (the country where I grew up, Tunisia, is more marked by the French model, and I myself received a bilingual education in accord with the reforms introduced by the state under Bourguiba), I discovered to my great astonishment the cohabitation of American-style consumerism with a vision of a simplified, traditionalist thought, very schematic and far removed from tradition and its complexity. I learned that the Muslim participating in the consumer society proposed by the global market does not need to reform his soul first. The individual can very well adopt the American way of life while hanging on to his archaism.

The best example of this paradox is embodied by Saudi Arabia, a country authentically pro-Western in its alliances, profoundly Americanized in its urban landscape, yet simultaneously extolling a kind of Islam that is not even a traditional Islam but an Islam that has gone through a series of reducing diets from which it emerges anemic and debilitated. This is an Islam that founds its belief on the negation of the civilization that engendered it. It is an Islam that is constantly at war with everything that’s great in its history, at war with all that’s beautiful, and that came about not by the application of the letter of the law but rather through the transgression or at least the skirting of that letter, in some attempt to depart from it without necessarily attacking it.

If indeed some authority chose to subject its community at any price to a univocal letter of the law, that authority would need to prohibit reading the Sufis and theosophical thinkers who, like Ibn Arabi, dared to think audaciously. Such an authority would be forced to destroy the beautiful texts that led to our adolescent awakening. To shred the Divan of that most famous ninth century poet discussed in Chapter 3, the Baghdad libertine Abu Nuwas. To hunt down the freethinkers of Islam in the depths of the ninth or tenth century [1].  To feed the flames of an auto-da-fe with the scattered pages of their works: those of Ibn al-Muqaffa (middle of the eighth century) who for his ethical quest preferred the ancient ones (the Manicheans) to his contemporaries (the Muslims); or those of the most famous impious character of Islam, Ibn Rawandi (ninth century), who put to flight a number of Islamic myths: the inimitability of the Qur’an, the impeccability of the Prophet, the mechanism of the Revelation. Such an authority would think it urgent to throw a veil over the figures evoked by Ibn Hazm (993-1064), who managed to adopt a disillusioned religious stance by applying the principles of the Greek skeptics who claimed that all proofs are equally valid (the isotheneia ton logon)[2]. It would insist on tearing up the books of al-Ma’ari (973-1058), the poet who revoked all religions in such a lapidary formula that it was easy for me to retain it in my student memory. The blind man from Ma’arra is a skeptical spirit who introduced me to the virtues of doubt, in this verse, for example:

Each generation of men follows an other
and turns the old lies into the new religion.

Which generation was given the right path?[3]

By the same token it would be necessary to burn the Thousand and One Nights which struck my childish ears so deeply, made me familiar with the evil that inhabits this world and confirmed, through the journey through words, that Islamic imprint which structures me as a speaking subject, capable of symbolizing and imagining in order to respond to the violence of the real.

It is important to understand that the emergence of this scanty and impoverished Islam acts first of all against Islam itself as a culture and civilization. What remains astonishing for me is the cohabitation within this fundamentalism of archaic regression with active participation in technique and technology. If I have cited the case of Saudi Arabia it is because those people are now at the core of an immense aporia: while being part of the Western alliance, while wanting to be part of the pax americana, they have fuelled the real or virtual civil war that is threatening the whole of the Muslim world. It is they who have financed, who have backed, who have restored this idea of a return to the pure letter, to the application of the letter of Islamic law, and who are trying to put the Qur’anic letter at the very foundation of the law down to the use of corporal punishments obedient to scriptural imperatives.

[1] Some portraits of these freethinkers can be found in Dominique Urvoy’s Les penseurs Libres de l’Islam Classique, Albin Michel, Paris, 1996.

[2] Ibn Hazm, al-Facl fi-l-Milal wa’l-Ah’wa’ wa’n-Nihall, V, p.119, Cairo. The fifth volume is not dated, the first four are dated between 1317 and 1321h. (1899-1902). See also the Ibn Hazm selection in volume 4 of Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book  of North African Literature, specifically pages 67-70. 

[3] The reader who does not have Arabic can be initiated into the work of this author by one of the available French translations, for example al-Ma’arri’s Rets d’éternité, poetical extracts translated by Adonis and Anne W. Minkowsky, Fayard, 1988. An English translation is available online, here

[to be continued]

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2 opinions on “Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (4)”

  1. “The much-touted choice facing the “Muslim community”, between modernity and obscurantism, between “here” and “home”, is false. Here is home. Life is modern. All we can do is negotiate.”…Christopher de Bellaigue

    Ah, were it but that simple. And what is there to negotiate, the rule of law? We in the west separate church and state and where the line is blurred we do not arm the church.

    Abd ar-Raziq recommended that “Muslims rethink their political structures by taking into account historical evolution and the contributions of other nations.”

    That is to say, ‘get with the times.’ Much of the Muslim world has done just that, successfully living in the modern world, such as it is, while practicing their religion, working at their jobs and raising their families. Then there are the “others” who accept modern weapons, cell phones and computers but choose to live in the 7th century. Go figure.

    If what is called the “moderate” Muslim or the “modern” Muslim fails to eradicate the terrorists within, all Muslims will be the losers rightly or wrongly.

    Abdelwahab Meddeb’s book is a magnificent historical study, well written and researched. I think I may have mentioned that before. Yet another in a long list of works I would never have come across without this blog. Khalid’s contribution was excellent too.

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