Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (9)


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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