Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (15)


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(15th installment)

P a r t  I V

The Western Exclusion of Islam


Should we think back to the Ismailians when we recall the secrecy so complete in the conduct of the September 11th terrorists? In fact, the examples of dissimulation and disguise as concerns the Ismailian fidâ’is are just as impressive as the behavior of our present terrorists.  The ones who executed Conrad de Montferrat were dressed as Christian monks.  The ones who terrorized Saladin had waited patiently for months to become the two most intimate Mamelukes of their master.  The ones who executed the vizier Mu’în ad-Dîn were disguised as two servants.  The one who killed Nizâm al-Mulk played the role of a Sufi.  And the fidâ’i sent to kill off Fakhr ad-Dîn Râzi, who was criticizing their doctrine in his public courts, had passed for months as an assiduous student, winning the master’s confidence before attacking him when they were in a tête-à-tête together:  Râzi saved his life only by promising never again to criticize their actions or their doctrine.[1]

Should we recall the tradition of dissimulation that recourse to taqiyya implies, used in the Shiite logic of Ismailism?[2]  The word taqiyya derives from the root w.q.y. which means to watch out, to be careful, to protect, to preserve.  When you are unable to practice your religion in the open, or to make your faith public, it is recommended that you hide your belief, to take all the necessary precautions to keep, preserve, protect your private thinking.  This practice was observed in two situations:  among Muslims who had the status of foreigners under the authority of another law, and among those of the Islamic minority when Sunnite power persecuted those it considered heretical, that is to say various Shiite sects (including Ismailism) or the Khawarij.[3]  These sect members were advised to practice taqiyya in periods of persecution:  concealing your conviction saves you from being pursued.  This strategy of dissimulation helped the survival of a number of sects.  The Shiites are the ones who formed this idea and who theorized it, saying that, when the Muslim fears the danger of the enemy, God authorizes him to deny his faith with his tongue if he remains a believer in his heart.  They took this idea from a scriptural reference: “Believers should not take the infidel as friends instead of believers.  Whoever does that in no way honors God, unless you protect yourself (tattaqû) from their misdeeds.”[3]

For the Sunnites, recourse to taqiyya was not valued, while it is acknowledged practically in all the sects that its use is permitted, even without the requirement that it be used only to save you from danger of death.  In this vein, another Koranic verse is invoked: “Work in the path of God and do not throw yourself with your own hands into danger and do good, God loves those who do good.”[5]

This idea is considered dangerous by the Sunnites, who think it weakens the holy war and martyrdom.  The Hanafites, for instance, prefer martyrs who die under torture to those who, resorting to taqiyya, save their lives by verbally denying their faith. 

The use of taqiyya is sometimes recommended to Muslims when they are in a minority and threatened by intolerant authority, as was the case with the Moriscos, the last Muslims of Spain, who found themselves obliged to choose between exile and conversion.  This impulse towards intolerance had been begun in 1499 by the pious but fanatical Franciscan friar Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, who had become confessor to the king before becoming Inquisitor General of Castile.  He carried out the forced conversion of four thousand Muslims in Grenada, dishonoring the pact of 1492 which authorized the practice of their religion for those Muslims who wished to remain in Grenada after its surrender by their monarch Boabdil.[6]  This distressful situation elicited a fatwa composed by an Oranese theologian from Almagro; it is dated, according to the copies, December 1503 or 1504.  The rescript begins with an ardent sentiment addressed to the Moriscos of Grenada forced into conversion:  “Brothers, you seize your religion like one who seizes live embers in his hand.”[7]  The mufti of Oran calls those Muslims become Christian through force the ghurabâ’, or foreigners, thinking of the beautiful hadîth that says, “Islam was born foreign, it will end as it began, foreign; blessed are the foreigners.”[8]  Then he recommends that they live the Islam of taqiyya, dissimulation, and he explains how to act so as to hide their doctrine and their practice, to maintain their faith in the secret of their heart while pretending to adhere to Christianity.  This is 

what is called in Muslim theology “the status of constraint to say words of denial by force.”  This case goes back to the beginning of Islam, when Qureysh made the first Muslims undergo unbearable tortures to make them deny their religion — and that clearly resembles the case of the Muslims of Andalusia forced to embrace Christianity.[9]

A Koranic verse had been revealed to the Prophet on this subject, promising the worst punishments to “whoever denies God after having believed, except for one who has suffered constraint and whose heart remains peaceful in faith.”[10]

This, then, is taqiyya, which is to be practiced in a situation of violence where the Muslim finds himself oppressed in his belief, and is led to come to terms with the contradiction between hidden faith and evident behavior.  This practice is dominated by the notion of intention (niyya), which is central in Islam, as the hadîth proclaims when it says that “actions count only by their intentions.”  It is the intention that counts when, subjected to constraint, the Muslim is forced to declare himself a Christian:  for him to preserve his faith, it is enough for him to declare his Islamic intention while practicing Christian rites.

Must we return to theological considerations to understand the way in which the September 11th terrorists prepared their murderous attack in secret for months, if not for years? Why not see in it simply the clandestine action common to secret societies motivated by insurrectional and revolutionary aims? If one insists on satisfying the cult of the specific, why not refer to the clandestine movements that existed in the Near-East, with the Arabs, in the beginning of the century, struggling against the Ottomans, at a time when the emergence of Arabism was encouraged by the English to weaken the Turkish empire? Concerning these movements, T. E. Lawrence writes that the Arabs

read the Turkish papers, putting “Arab” for “Turk” in the patriotic exhortations.  Suppression charged them with unhealthy violence.  Deprived of constitutional outlets they became revolutionary.  The Arab societies went underground, and changed from liberal clubs into conspiracies.  The Akhua, the Arab mother society, was publicly dissolved.  It was replaced in Mesopotamia by the dangerous Ahad, a very secret brotherhood, limited almost entirely to Arab officers in the Turkish army, who swore to acquire the military knowledge of their masters, and to turn it against them, in the service of the Arab people, when the moment of rebellion came.

It was a large society, with a sure base in the wild part of Southern Irak, where Sayid Taleb, the young John Wilkes of the Arab movement, held the power in his unprincipled fingers.  To it belonged seven out of every ten Mesopotamian-born officers; and their counsel was so well kept that members of it held high command in Turkey to the last. […]

Greater than the Ahad was the Fetah, the society of freedom in Syria.  The landowners, the writers, the doctors, the great public servants linked themselves in this society with a common oath, passwords, signs, a press and a central treasury, to ruin the Turkish Empire.[11]

If one insists on an explanation that takes cultural difference into account to grasp the principle of dissimulation, one might as well offer the one that contrasts the civilization of saying-everything with that of discretion and silence and modesty, qualities that would predispose one to keeping secrets.  Although I doubt the effectiveness of such a shortcut, it is not useless to insist on this real cultural difference.  Western civilization has created the say-everything of autobiography, especially beginning with Rousseau’s Confessions.  I insist on this true beginning, while still aware that, in Western tradition, there was a precursor to the Confessions written by my compatriot Saint Augustine, who allows the child he was to speak (which is a distinctive trait of the genre).  But finally, this work discusses sin only in connection with faith; Augustine’s life is divided into periods by it:  before and after his conversion.  Another forerunner was Montaigne, who revived Pascal’s attack on “the detestable self.” 

What’s more, there have been at least three famous autobiographies in the Islamic tradition, all, moreover, translated into French:  the one by the Syrian Usama Ibn al-Munqîdh (1095-1188), which constitutes a precious first-hand account of the Crusades, revealing to us the character and truth of a person through the vivacity of his involvement in major historic events.[12]  But it ignores childhood, does not make personal avowals, confesses nothing, does not internalize sin, does not play the card of guilt, the very thing necessary for the establishment of the subject.  When even faults do not exist, it would be necessary to invent them, to create the drama that would show the subject being formed as something unique.  It is the Sufis who, in Islam, perceived the importance of this, following the example of Bistâmi.[13]  But it is already a feat for Ibn al-Munqîdh to have arrived at the truth of the self-portrait merely by the description of his involvement in events:  this constitutes an appreciable achievement for a society based on the reserve, if not the effacement, of the self, in the strategy of social and intersubjective relationships.

There is also the autobiography of my other compatriot Ibn Khaldûn, born in Tunis, died in Cairo:  in it, the author recalls neither his childhood nor his family nor his feelings.  In short, in his Voyage the self is eclipsed and the work very eloquently illustrates the culture of the secret, of reserve, of retreat from the ego.  It is a culture that is distinguished from the one that establishes confession as its center.[14]  Ibn Khaldûn’s book on the other hand leaves a precious account of the workings of institutions where the power of authority and knowledge is exercised in the Arab Islamic societies of the fourteenth century, with moreover some beautiful descriptions (like that of Cairo quoted earlier) and some fine stories, including the one that recounts the author’s meeting with Tamerlane at the gates of Damascus.[15]

Finally, the last famous autobiography was written by a monarch, the famous Babur (1494-1529) who would go on to conquer northern India and found the dynasty of the Mughals.[16]  What characterizes this book is again the modesty with which the man gives us his notes on daily life, his youth, his joys, regrets, ambitions, failures and triumphs.  The subjective part is conveyed in the emotions that certain landscapes or certain portraits arouse, as well as in the sensations that describe the experience of the senses, as when he discovered the taste of mangoes in India, a new taste of an unknown fruit to which Babur will continue to prefer the taste of melon, the fruit of his childhood and his native land.

[1]  Bernard Lewis, Assassins. For these various anecdotes, see respectively p. 160, 159-60, 104, 85, 114-5.

[2]  For this idea of takiyya, see ibid., p. 61, 122, 134, 176.

[3] The “deserters” (or dissidents) that constitute the oldest sect of Islam, whose adepts first manifested on the occasion of the battle of Siffin (July 657), by leaving the ranks of the two armies to express their refusal to participate in the arbitration between the two claimants for the caliphate, Mu’âwiya and ‘Ali.  This extremist sect with exalted fanaticism had the special feature of declaring an infidel anyone who did not share its points of view.  It also practiced political assassination and terrorism, and does not even spare women.  It is for that reason it is often invoked in relation to contemporary fundamentalists.  See the article by G. Levi Della Vida in the Encyclopédie de l’Islam, 4:1106-9.  See also H. Laoust, Les Schismes dans l’Islam (Paris: Payot, 1965),36 and following,.

[4]  Qur’an 3:28.

[5]  Quar’an 2:195.

[6]  Rodrigo de Zayas, Les Morisques et le racisme d’État (Paris:  La Différence, 1992) 218-219.

[7]  Leila Sabbagh, “La Religion des Moriscos entre deux fatwas,” in Les Morisques et leur temps (Paris:  CNRS, 1983) 50.  I owe much to this analysis, especially concerning taqiyya.

[8]  See the Sahîh by Muslim, 2:175-6.

[9]  Leila Sabbagh, “La Religion des Moriscos entre deux fatwas,” 53.

[10]  Qur’an 16:106.

[11] T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York:  Garden City, 1938) 46-47.  [Translated into French as Les Sept Piliers de la sagesse, by Julien Deleuze (Paris:  Folio-Gallimard, 1992) 55-56.]

[12] Usama ibn al-Munqîdh, Des enseignements de la vie, Souvenirs d’un gentilhomme syrien du temps des croisades [On the teachings of life:  Memoirs of a Syrian gentleman on the time of the Crusades], trans. André Miquel (Paris:  Imprimerie nationale, 1983).

[13]  Bistâmi, Les Dits de Bistâmi, passages 47, 48, 49, 50.

[14]  Ibn Khaldûn, Le Voyage d’Occident et d’Orient.

[15]  Ibid., 230-9.

[16]  Le Livre de Babour, Mémoires du premier Grand Mogol des Indes [Babur’s book, Memoirs of the first Great Mogul of the Indies], trans. from the Chaghatay Turkish by Jean-Louis Bacqué-Grammont (Paris:  Imprimerie nationale, 1985).

[to be continued]

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3 opinions on “Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (15)”

    1. Yes, indeed, it is an excellent article & many thanks for pointing it out — I am a reader of Jadaliyya, which I consider one of the best sources for information on the Arab/Islamic parts of the world.

  1. It is an excellent article but in the end ISIS is still there and all the historical references that say they aren’t true representatives of Islam does not make them go away. Nor does it raise an Islamic army to challenge them. That is the issue that Abdelwahab Meddeb and the Jadaliyyawe article keep circling. That and the fact that their support is more widespread than any of us would like to believe or admit.

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