Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (12)


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(12th installment)


Fundamentalism Against the West


It was such an indoctrination that reanimated a caricature version of a Medinese utopia in the Afghanistan of the Taliban.  The ridiculous regime of the Afghan mullahs was judged by Osama bin Laden to be the unique earthly realization of the ideal city of Islam, after the Medina of the four first Caliphs (called in myth al-khulafâ’ ar-Râshidûn, “the well-guided caliphs.”)  But what a difference there is between the Medina of history and the stupid and archaic sublimation of Kabul!

I have some sympathy for the Medina of the beginning, where rumors murmured and the first tentative attempts at a new civilization began, starting from almost nothing.  And the voices of women were mixed with those of men in that setting, a context where the great violence of civil war did not stop the momentum of conquests.  This sequence of foundation constituted just a first step in the chronicle that the city would come to know in the course of the first century after the Hegira.  The blessed city would live a second, illustrious time when the political center of the nascent empire moved to Damascus, when the wealth of the booty won through conquest would accumulate in its caves. This was a propitious time for the culture to flourish, especially since there was no lack of money for the expenses of luxury. 

Despite all the admiration inspired by those primitive Muslims who were the protagonists of the beginning, poignant in that they had a commitment to a great destiny, but were always torn between pagan impulses and the imperatives of the new law, despite all their glory, my personal preference is for the second Medina, the one that gave birth to a famous school of song, the one that welcomed a gallant poetics, supported by beautiful discourses intensifying in the truth of their difference the relationship between the sexes, a Medina that did not impose on its women the status of the oppressed, but of lovers and celebrated singers, worldly women who held literary or musical salons, hosting concerts and poetic jousts, admirable for their teasing and the pleasing coquetry to which they gave rise.[1]  Recalling those obscured times, what can I feel but revulsion toward the Medinese caricature the Afghanistan of the Taliban embodies?

The United States continued to negotiate with the Taliban until August 2001, promising them a large reward for bin Laden.  They must have been naïve to think that a disciple would, for wealth, hand over his master.  With the same Taliban forces, the surest Islamic allies of the United States (Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia) continued to have privileged relationships.  How could they let the Taliban apply their sinister law in impunity? It would appear that the state of people and things in Afghanistan didn’t shock anyone.  I can understand such an attitude on the part of the Pakistanis, who are affected by ethnic Pashtun solidarity, anxious to develop a profound strategy, and not unaware of the Islamist ideology that watches over the least transactions in the hinterland.  The same is true for Saudi Arabia:  after all, the Taliban are its ideological children, though poorer and more frustrated, more excessive; but in the end, they are only applying the dogma the Wahhabites had taught them; at most they add to the received doctrine the zeal of the neophyte.  But why didn’t the United States rank the Afghanistan of the Taliban as outcasts?  Why did the suffering of the Afghan people count for nothing with the chancelleries?   

Since the First Gulf War (1991) one of the themes dealt with in the mirror of democratic opinion has been the right to interfere.  But no one had recourse to this idea when the Taliban announced their decision to destroy the Buddhas at Bamiyan in the name of the battle against idols.  Yet that was an ideal occasion to exercise such a right legitimately.  An intervention to save the Buddhas would have set a legal precedent; it would have given efficacy and moral legitimacy to the idea.  Perhaps it was too much to ask of our Western friends, who had destroyed Iraq by running to the aid of Kuwait.  In that war, the principle of interference was invoked, but I know it was invoked only because oil interests were at stake.  Without such considerable economic stakes, Iraq’s aggression would have aroused only verbal protests not followed by any action.  I should make this clear:  I have never defended the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq; faced with the event, I took a stance acquiescing to the theses defended by Kant in his treatise entitled Toward Everlasting Peace. Iraq had fomented disorder by rejecting the borders of an already established nation. A State is like a stock with its own root; to attach it as a graft on another State amounts to suspending its existence as if of a moral person, and making it into a thing, and thus contradicts the idea of an original contract without which no right over a people is conceivable.[2]

Since it was the origin of a casus belli, Iraq deserved to be punished.  But between the punishment of a State and of a leader, both of which sow trouble, and the protection of such a leader combined with rage against a people, I see two irreconcilable aims.  Still, it would be inappropriate to examine the Iraqi dossier here.  I will just recall that, without oil, no coalition would have been formed to destroy Iraq.  I remember especially the speeches and reflections that accompanied that sad episode.  A number of intellectuals evoked great principles, the same ones it is easy to recall when you are threatened in your comfort and that it is better to silence as soon as your interests require it.  Linking the survival of a principle to one’s own interest ruins the principle itself.  With similar considerations, on the subject of colonialism, I have already mentioned one of the symptoms of Western sickness.  I will only evoke it in passing, but I don’t want the reader to read into that a method of symmetry:  sickness for sickness.  If such were the case, my project would be emptied of its substance; it is far from my intention to neutralize the sickness I am treating by applying the sickness of the other.

[1] See Abû Faraj al-Isfahâni (897-967), Kitâb al-Aghâni, 25 volumes, commented on and annotated by A. A. Mhanna and S. Y. Jâbir (1986.)  This famous book is a magnificent summa (peppered with savory anecdotes) telling the history of song and poetry throughout the first three centuries of Hegira.  In the beginning of his book, Isfahâni devotes numerous pages to the Medina where poets, musicians, singers, and lovers jostled to woo, sing, dance, and improvise in the harmony between the melody of sound and language. 

[2]  Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, translated by M. Cambell Smith (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1992).


If someone had intervened to prevent the destruction of the Buddhas, the principle would have been preserved; the right to interfere would have acquired its virtue.  Precise, limited, materially not costly, such an action would have smelled neither of oil or of gas; it would not have been aroused by greed for gold or uranium.  Art alone, which belongs to those who love it and take pleasure from it, surpasses territorial borders.  Such an action was within the scope of the United Nations:  weren’t the statues designated a universal heritage site by UNESCO?

The giant Buddhas, sculpted out of the walls of the mountain between the third and fourth century of our era, remained significant for a still living religious practice.  From my point of view, all beliefs deserve to be considered:  that is a teaching I take from Sufism, notably the Akbarian tradition, elaborated in the framework of Islamic faith by Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), the Andalusian master who recommends being “hyle so that all beliefs can take form within you.”[1]  That is to say, for the Sufi from Murcia, the Islamic disciple has the capacity to internalize all forms of beliefs and to progress with their truth without trying to reduce them or make them disappear.  He is even ready to sing the praises of tendencies that shock common Muslim opinion, such as the Trinity, assimilated into Islam in a form of polytheism, and that Ibn ‘Arabi celebrates in one of his poems in which he reveals a perfect complicity between logic and the mystery of the hypostasis.[2]  In such an economy of inner experience, the celebration of Buddhism by a spiritual member of Islam is entirely possible.  We could have put this theory into practice if we had landed in Afghanistan to save the Buddhas.  Such an undertaking would have consecrated a gesture of tolerance in harmony with the Islamic tradition itself; from the depths of the Middle Ages, this gesture could give a lesson in complexity to the frustrated Wahhabite fundamentalists who rage in this beginning of the twenty-first century.

First, we should recall that the image in Islam constitutes more a question than a taboo that prohibits questioning.  The problem is not raised by the Koran; and the hadîth treat it in a quasi-Platonic way, especially if one seeking to understand it consults Bâb at-Taswîr (“chapter of the image”) in the Sahîh by Muslim (born around 820), commented on by Nawawi (1233-1277).[3]  Leaving aside the anecdotes that are useful from an anthropological viewpoint, I note that it virtually poses the philosophic question in its relation to mimesis (muhâkât).  Such hadîth denounces the element missing from the image in the exercise of imitation. The prophet says that a challenge will be given to painters and sculptors: on the day of judgment, they will be asked to bring to life the creatures they had imitated, and they will not be capable of doing so.  Thus, the prophet recommends that painters imitate the inanimate (which corresponds to the iconographic plan of the mosaics that decorate the courtyard of the Omayyad mosque built in Damascus, in 705, by order of the caliph Walîd I).  In the theological debate the question of images has aroused, one of the most radical fatwas, forbidding all representation, even subjects which are not animate, is the one pronounced by Ibn Taymiyya, the ancestor of the Wahhabites. He equates the use of the image, its production or its likeness, with an act of idolatry.  On the other hand, at the other pole, Ibn ‘Arabi legitimizes the likeness of the icon on the scene of the imagination.  The practitioner of Islamic belief, he tells us, as inheritor of Judaism and Christianity, must resolve a paradox as to the status of the image.  How can one reconcile the taboo of representation in the Decalogue (somewhat confirmed by the hadîth) and the iconophilia related to Christ? Taking support from the tradition of virtuous behavior (Hadîth al-Ihsân), the Murcian Sufi recommends that the practitioner of Islam adore God “as if he saw Him.  This “as if” opens the curtains of the imaginary stage where the one who prays fabricates what I have called elsewhere the “mental icon.”[4] 

The same Ibn ‘Arabi tempers the monotheist refutation of idolatry; he demystifies it.  The cult of images is not considered negligible; it can manifest in belief as a lower degree of adoration. The worshipper is subject to a hierarchy in his spiritual exercises:  adoration that seeks out the image remains inferior, but it is not worthless.  What characterizes beliefs, what unifies and authenticates them beyond their formal differences, is that they are all based on passion (al-h’awâ’).  And whatever the object of adoration is (stone, tree, animal, human representation, star, angel), the practitioner is always confronted with an imagined form of the divinity.  For this reason, some pagans say:  “We adore them only so that they can bring us closer to God.”[5]  And even those who call their cult objects gods have cried out:  “Has he made of the gods one single God? That is indeed an admirable thing!”[6]  Pagans did not deny Him, they marveled at Him.  They fixed on the plurality of forms, which all lead back to the divinity.  The prophet invited them to adore one single God, who can be known but not seen.  The passage from one degree to the other was easy for them, since, by saying “We adore them only so that they can bring us closer to God,” they knew that their idols were only stone.  The prophet encouraged them to adore God at the top of the hierarchy, that of the impenetrable, unrepresentable God, whom sight cannot grasp; but, at the same time, recommends Ibn ‘Arabi, it is up to the individual to develop himself through experience, which is epiphanic, and epiphany is realized through forms.  Thus, if God does not show himself in the perceptible, it is not because He is forbidden from representation; in epiphanies many images illustrate the manifestation of Him; if you no longer feel the need to grasp Him in forms, it is because you have reached the summit of divine knowledge.[7]

In his impressive book on India, on the subject of the representation of the Buddha, Bîrûni (973- c. 1050) says no more than this in the chapter he devotes to “the principle of adoration of statues and the method of erecting them.”[8]  He sings the praises of idols by attributing to them an educative function for the masses who, in all cultures and beliefs, have easier access to the perceptible than to the intelligible. The latter is limited to scholars who, everywhere, constitute an elite characterized by small numbers.  Thus, in numerous beliefs, initiates have decorated the figures of books and temples.  Faced with the image, an ordinary person’s adherence to belief is more immediate.  Bîrûni takes pleasure in depicting an ordinary Muslim to whom the image of the Prophet, of Mecca and of the Ka’ba, is shown. The person’s reaction would be entirely joyful; identification would lead him to imagine that he has seen the Prophet in person and that he could postpone performing a pilgrimage, since he thinks he has visited the Holy Places by having the image of them in front of his eyes.  Many of the figures Bîrûni saw in India are ancient, but the wheel of the centuries has turned, the reasons for their presence were forgotten, the faithful would visit them out of custom alone if priests did not intervene to recall their function and especially their iconographic symbolism. 

I would also like to evoke the way in which Buddha and Indian idolatry are described in the two great treatises devoted to religions and sects by the Muslim scholars of the Middle Ages. Ibn Hazm the Andalusian attributes to Hindus the belief in the stars that govern the universe:  “Thus act the Hindus with their idols (bidada).  They give them form and celebrate them by invoking the stars.”[9]  Shahrastani (1088-1153) devotes a fragment to Buddhists in his treatise: “‘Buddha’ signifies for them an individual of this world, who was not given birth to and did not take a wife, does not eat or drink, does not get old or die.”[10]  Buddha is called in Arabic al-budd (pl. bidada, from which comes ashâb al-bidada = the Buddhists).  The term comes from the Sanskrit buddha, “the Awakened One,” epithet for Siddhârtha Gautama, the man who founded Buddhism and who died at the age of eighty years, around 480 BC.  A note from the translators tells us that Sharastani’s description, “authentically Buddhist,” does not correspond to the historic Buddha.  “It concerns the ‘body of law’ (Sanskrit:  dharmakaya), that is to say the supra-worldly and infinite reality of the eternal Buddha.”  This remark is a sign that Islam kept its curiosity open to India.  The potential awareness that developed was restricted by the common notion that Buddhism is idolatry, so that the word budd signifies in Arabic simply “idol.”  The fact remains that the Islamic view of Buddhism and India was enriched by other, more complex viewpoints.

Everyone can admire the extraordinary Shiva Nataraja, “the Lord of the dance” with four arms, in the Musée Guimet in Paris.  The architrave of Nepalese stupas, like the one in Bodhnath, turns three eyes of the Buddha toward each cardinal point:  his “normal” eyes of omniscience and universal compassion, surmounted by the vertical eye of wisdom.  Somewhat similarly, why not say that Islam regarded Hinduism with four eyes:  the normal eyes of observation and science, underlined by the eye of discernment and surmounted by the eye of benevolence?”[11]

The eye of judgment is the organ of the polemicist theologian; when condemning idolatry, he thinks first of India.  The eye of observation brings back tales that interested travelers.  It is the picturesque India as it appears in the two major works of the tenth century:  Al-Fihrist by Ibn Nadîm (who died at the very end of the tenth century)(44) and The Fields of Gold by Mas’ûdi (who died in 956).[12]  The eyewitnesses are especially taken by the exploits of ascetics.  The scientific viewpoint is embodied by Bîrûni, already quoted, whose book devoted to India, finished in 1030, draws from a profound knowledge of Sanskrit and diligent conversations with the pandits he had met during his pilgrimages in the northwest of the subcontinent.  Finally,

Islam waited many centuries to open its fourth eye, the selective eye of benevolence.  Selective, because this eye of syncretist Sufism functioned as a prism, breaking down the light of India into Muslim colors.  A prestigious monarch, Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, who reigned from 1556 to 1605, adopted the movement of rapprochement with Hinduism…  In the seventeenth century, the Mughal prince Dârâ Shikôh, who wrote in Persian, translated fifty upanishads (…) and composed a treatise, Majma’ al-Bahrayn(46), on the confluence of mystic Islam and Indian religion.[13]

Through the example of the Buddhas, the hole dug by these Wahhabite fundamentalists, simplistic and one-dimensional, is once more revealed, deviating from the traditions of Islam, polyphonic, questioning, problematic, plural in its answers.  This is the gap between ancient Islam, intelligent and likeable, and the political forms of present Islam, stupid and detestable.  By this yardstick we can measure the distance that separates someone overwhelmed by resentment, reacting to abolish otherness, from the sovereign subject, who dares to confront the other in his difference, to deepen his knowledge of self and to maintain the diversity of the world.  Such occultations  exactly characterize Wahhabite teaching, which is intended to establish a generalized amnesia.  When I see the uncrossable abyss that separates classic Islam from some of its current manifestations, I feel the sorrow that Hölderlin expresses in Hyperion about the irreparable loss the spiritual extinction of Greece represented:  what a depressing present contrasted with ancient genius! It is difficult to feel “the atrocious alternation, in you, of joy and pain:  that is because you have both everything and nothing (…), because you are a god among gods, in the admirable dreams that invade your days, and because upon waking, you find yourself again on the soil of present-day Greece.”[14]

But the Greece of now is a little country with no aim of glory or claim to hegemony. Ancient Greece is a dead civilization with a dead language, which Hölderlin hoped to revive and reclaim as an inheritance to retrace his own experience. Arabic, however, is still living, since Islam has the ambition of existing and mattering in the world solely by virtue of its territories and the number of its practitioners.  Perhaps the creative among the native speakers of Arabic will have to learn how to die to their language, and the brightest among the adherents of Islam will have to carry their origin to the cemetery of history.  Like a phoenix who could make the poets and thinkers of Islam fruitful, assuring them a return to themselves, and cause them to be reborn from the ashes of the entity to which they belonged.  Perhaps then Islam could find again the blossoming that would aid the women and men who want to add their voices to the murmur filling the world scene.

During the destruction of the colossi of Bamiyan on March 9, 2001, the world was not taken by surprise.  The Taliban had announced the intention to commit their crime many days before carrying out the act.  They had taken the time to organize its spectacle.  Iconoclasts mixing archaism with technology, they had no phobia about the televised image.  They know what kind of weapon it represents.  Narcissists of the small screen, they take pleasure in defying the world by making public enactment of their misdeeds.  Slaves to the news flash, subject to the rhetoric of publicity, mixing the brevity of the excerpt (the American sense of the news bite) with the special effects of video, they broadcast their attack on a venerable product of Buddhist aesthetics in a series of hard-hitting and ostentatious shots. 

Aren’t they, in their very archaism, unconscious children of the Americanization of the world? Can I dare to assert that, if we had exercised the right of intervention to save the Buddhas, New York would have escaped the loss of its twin towers? Don’t the two sequences of destruction constitute two phases that strangely belong to one single tragedy? Aren’t the images of September 11 the crescendo of those of March 9? From Asia to America, from the rocky walls of Bamiyan to the shores of the Hudson, tall forms that had spread the pride of their erection were instantaneously pulverized into a cloud of dust.  Video recordings in the form of news clips bore witness to both disasters.  Didn’t you feel, after twice witnessing two disappearances, the same sensation of emptiness stretching out from the annihilated site to the rest of the universe? Why couldn’t the politicians who govern our world foresee that the destruction of the two Buddhas in Bamiyan was only the prelude or the warning sign of the implosion that made Manhattan’s twin towers collapse and crush thousand of humans within it with steel and glass? Our “decision-makers” are exclusively possessed of a technical reasoning, which prevents them from discerning the relationship between the symbolic and the real, the place where that part of the disappeared is measured, whether they are two age-old figures in rock or three thousand of our fellow creatures, perishable flesh and bone.

[1] The word Hyle (“matter”) is the same Greek work that Ibn ‘Arabi uses in Arabic (hayûli) to designate the matter that will accept form.(Ibn Arabi, Fusus al-Hikam [Cairo: Abû al-‘Alâ al-‘Afîfî, 1946], 113).

[2]  Ibn ‘Arabi, Tarjumân al-Ashwâq (Bezels of Wisdom), poem 12, translated in Abdelwahab Meddeb, Dédale/L’image et l’invisible, 1 and 2 (Patis: Maisonneuve & Larose, fall 1995), 69. 

See also the translation of the poem and the original commentary by Maurice Gloton in L’Interprète des désirs [The interpreter of desire], (Paris:  Albin Michel, 1996) 128-33.

[3]  Muslim ibn al-Hajjâj, Sahîh, with the sharh by Nawawi, 18 volumes (Cairo, 1349 A.H. / 1930 C.E.)

[4] Abdelwahab Meddeb, “L’Icône mentale,” in Dédale/L’Image et l’Invisible, 45-66.

[5[ Qur’an 39:3.

[6]  Qur’an 38:4.

[7]  Ibn ‘Arabi, Fusus, 194-6.

[8]  Bîrûni, Tahqîq mâ li’l-Hind, (Hyderabad, 1958) 84-5.  See the partial translation into French by Vincent Monteil entitled Le Livre de l’Inde (Paris:  Sindbad/Unesco, 1996) 125.

[9]  Ibn Hazm, al-Facl fi-l-Milal wa’l-Ah’wa’ wa’n-Nihall, 5:35.

[10]  Shahrastani, Le Livre des sectes et des religions, translated from the Arabic by J. Jolivet and G. Monnot (Paris-Louvain:  Peeters/Unesco, 1993), 2:530.

[11]  Guy Monnot, Islam et religions (Paris:  Maisonneuve & Larose, 1986) 115.

[12] Ibn Nadîm, Al-Fihrist, ed. R. Tajaddud, (Tehran, 1971), 409-412.  In this passage, the author is probably describing the two Buddhas in Bamayan:  “They have two statues whose forms were cut from the walls of the cliff, in a high valley; each of these statues is over eighty cubits high, and they can be seen from far away” (p. 410). Mas’ûdi, Murûj adh-Dhahab, revised and corrected by Charles Pellat,(Beirut:  Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille, 1966) 1:84-98, 1:245-281.

[13] Guy Monnot, Islam et religions, 117. The treatise Majma’ al-Bahryan was introduced, translated, and commented on by Daryush Shayegan in Hindouisme et soufisme, une lecture du “Confluent des deux océans” [Hinduism and Sufism, a reading of “The confluence of two oceans”] (Paris:  Albin Michel, 1997).

[14]  Friedrich Hölderlin, Hyperion, in Oeuvres, translated by Philippe Jaccotet (Paris:  La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1967) 190.

[to be continued]

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Comment on “Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (12)”

  1. Abdelwahab Meddeb opens many interesting doors. Either by intention or not, the same one keeps opening. “How could they (Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia) let the Taliban apply their sinister law in impunity?” Indeed. How could they? How could all the other Mid East countries? But they did.

    It should be asked why we all give Saudi Arabia and their Wahhabites such a wide pass. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Nusra and the rest are their “ideological children.” It is not oil for all of us. We don’t need it for one. There are others. The U.S., for all of the Narcissist in Chief’s bluster does, being the second largest importer of oil behind the European Union.

    But the Buddas? “An intervention to save the Buddas would have set a legal precedent; it would have given efficacy and moral legitimacy to the idea. Perhaps it was too much to ask of our Western friends, who had destroyed Iraq by running to the aid of Kuwait.” The same question always arises. Where were the Muslims? Why always call out to the west then cry like babies when they come with all their friends and like-minded allies in tow? Whatever happened to “do it yourself” or is that just another unwanted ‘Americanism?’

    “We could have put this theory into practice if we had landed in Afghanistan to save the Buddhas. Such an undertaking would have consecrated a gesture of tolerance in harmony with the Islamic tradition itself; from the depths of the Middle Ages, this gesture could give a lesson in complexity to the frustrated Wahhabite fundamentalists who rage in this beginning of the twenty-first century.” Yeah, well IF! And the Wahhabists would have seen that as an invasion no matter who made it. The UN? Why not turn to Disneyland? They give you what you want, when you want it and are way more cost efficient not to mention honest.

    “Can I dare to assert that, if we had exercised the right of intervention to save the Buddhas, New York would have escaped the loss of its twin towers?” Well, no you can’t. In the fullness of time, history provides many events the academics can point to and connect from one century, one decade to another. In hindsight, they all make sense. Those that invaded Iraq, many for the oil, others for the glory and some merely to oust a tyrant and find terrorists may not see the connection, up close as they were. I rather doubt you’d find one who was there because of the Buddas. You’d sadly find many more who had no idea whatsoever of the Buddas or their significance.

    The Wahhabists are clearly at the core of the “malady.” Their selective and brutal interpretations have found favor with the Islamic terrorists. Abdelwahab Meddeb longs for a more beautiful time but don’t we all?

    “This is the gap between ancient Islam, intelligent and likeable, and the political forms of present Islam, stupid and detestable.”

    And in between lie the opportunities missed, for all of us.

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