Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (7)


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.]

http://members.tripod.com/~wzzz/MAWARDI.html ] [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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Comment on “Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (7)”

  1. “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.”

    And yet we have ISIS et al and their violent attempt to create a new Caliphate. How could that be? There may be only one Allah but there are several versions of Islam showing the way to him/her.

    Whether separate or apart, it has long been my belief that religion and politics are more than a little similar. Ostensibly under one umbrella, yet they more often than not behave differently nationally, provincially or statewide and even more so on the local level. Abdelwahab Meddeb has deftly illustrated thus far how Islam has evolved. I look forward to his commentary on modern times.

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