Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (16)

Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals,Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists ·Edit


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(16th installment)

P a r t  I V

The Western Exclusion of Islam


In a world in which interference reigns, on a planet subject to globalization, one must use the dialectics that combine the particular with the universal, the specific and the general, the different and the similar, all with the requisite nuance.  For centuries, borders have been drawn not just to prevent migration, but also to be crossed as much by ideas as by men.  Such journeys do not constitute a singularity of our time, even if in our day the migration of people and things has intensified. 

The phenomenon of the Assassins is best approached from this perspective of travel, a phenomenon that is an eastern, Islamic fact, but which has been constructed as a myth by the Christian West since medieval times.  The same West reactivated it in the seventeenth century, and then again in the nineteenth, so that every form of political terror was associated with it.  When it is used as an analogy to shed light on another Islamic fact, one should keep in mind the Western construction that such a reference requires.  Where one imagines one has found a cultural coherence between two facts— an ancient, “archeological” fact, supposed to decode another, contemporary fact, both of which are supposed to belong to the same historical space — one only carries out a linking of heterogeneous elements.  If one feels that there is a universal analogy between terrorism and Ismailism, the specific loses its specificity.  From here on the analogy between the Assassins and Qa’ida terrorists no longer constitutes proof of a cultural coherence or continuity.  The fact that the two phenomena belong to the same scene of belief might correspond to a coincidence, where it is understood that the Ismailian reference serves as a model for any terrorism based on secrecy and sacrifice.

I see only two similarities between al Qa’ida terrorists and the sect of the Assassins:  on the one hand, their leaders took refuge in impregnable mountains.  Hassan-i Sabbâh based his fortress of Alamût on a mountain crest in Elburz, not far from the Caspian Sea, in a region belonging to the sphere of Central Asia.  The stubbornness of the Mongols was needed to overcome it and win its surrender, almost three centuries after its foundation.  The citadel had been founded in 1090 by Hassan-i Sabbâh in the region called the land of the Daylam, northeast of the city of Qazvin, a country reputed to be difficult of access.  It was also, after its Islamization, a refuge for a number of sects persecuted by the orthodoxy:  in fact it was a permanent home for Shiite agitation.  The castle, said to be impregnable, was finally besieged by the Mongol Hülagü in 1256. 

At the moment I write these lines, though, I wonder how much longer bin Laden, his lieutenants, and their guard will resist there in the mountains near Qalât, in the province of Zabul, contiguous to that of Kandahar, from which comes the tribe of Hottaks, to which Mullah Omar belongs.  If they aren’t crouching in the caves of Qalât, they might be somewhere else in the mountain, eventually taking refuge in the underground base whose tunnels were dug beneath the high reliefs of Tora Bora, that place called “black dust,” with its desolate mountains and naked rocks that rise southeast of Jalalabad, more to the north of Qalât, but still in the opposite direction from the place where Alamût rose, on the other side of that territorial sphere called Central Asia.

It is the inevitable failure of the terrorist enterprise that constitutes the second similarity between the two movements:  al Qa’ida is destined to fail just as the Assassins failed.  The organization created by bin Laden will fail just as every similar movement throughout History has failed.  It is a lesson taken from human experience.  Historical accounts have recorded only failure for this kind of irredentist activism, animated by the fury of hubris.  In politics longevity is won through prudence and the art of compromise.  The only question that remains is how much such a failure will cost the world. 

Those who have taken up the Assassins as a reference to shed light on the events of September 11th turn out to be in agreement with Huntington’s theory when he predicted the “clash of civilizations.”[1]  The purpose of this thesis was to strengthen a shaky history, to give it a new reason for being, after the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.  What mattered was to respond to “the end of history” and to redefine the shape of the enemy.  Among the eight civilizations considered as potential rivals of the West, Islam was chosen as the future enemy, the one that would be the first to challenge Western hegemony.  Some have seen in the events of September 11th the realization of this prediction.  The very first American reactions invoked the Crusades as if by reflex, to respond to what was no doubt implicitly understood as an act of jihad.  But soon official discourse took a more prudent turn, leaving an at least symbolic place for Islamic allies, to organize a rejoinder to fundamentalism.  The distinction between Islam and Islamism distanced us from the hypothesis that invokes the clash of civilizations. 

Huntington’s theory was severely criticized by the Iranian philosopher (who writes in French) Daryush Shayegan.  He writes that Islam does not constitute a structured, coherent entity.  Under the effect of modernity, accepted or suffered, conscious or unconscious, Islam, like the other traditional civilizations, lives in a between state, between the loss of what it was and the infinite expectation of what it will be.  This situation is the consequence of the Westernization of the world, which is irreversible and which provokes a rupture involving the fate of all of humanity.  It is a rupture that has the same qualitative importance, the same amplitude, as the rupture of the Neolithic Age.  The final avatars of the industrial and scientific revolution transform man wherever he is and whatever the civilization is to which he belongs:  such is the precondition that makes globalization objective and establishes the common cultural scene.  All the other civilizations identified by Huntington as potentially anti-Western (Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Slav-Balkan, Latin-American, even African) are in the same situation; with varying degrees of subtlety and means, they are all forced participants in the common scene.  Hierarchical mobility and hegemonic restructuring can be developed only on this unique scene, and can only be involved in a shared axiology.[2]

Edward Saïd criticized the same thesis “heatedly,” when a number of commentators reanimated it to analyze the events of September 11th.[3]  He recalled that Huntington relies for his demonstration on an article by Bernard Lewis that appeared in 1990, the hostility of which is apparent in the title itself:  “The Roots of Islamic Rage.”  Thus, a man who had chosen the Ismailian connection to give a specific genesis to Islamist terrorism also is one of the first to identify Islam as the prime enemy of the West in the scenario revived by the clash of civilizations.  Edward Saïd tries to demonstrate that Islam was a complex phenomenon, whose experience has not been a single confrontation with the West.  Many times the two entities have intersected, met, enriched each other; they have been participants in the common theater of the Mediterranean.  Quite simply, Saïd recalls the obvious fact:  Islam has been inside Europe, it is within the West.  And as an example he gives Dante (1265-1321), forced to recognize the centrality of Islam by placing the Prophet and the imam, Mohammed and ‘Alî, in the heart of his hell.[4]

I will add that the presence, among the troublemakers of schism and discord, of the founder of Koranic literature and of his interpreter in the ninth bolgia of the eighth circle confirms first of all the medieval stereotype that equates Islam with a heretical sect.  Secondly, the predicament Dante created for them reveals the poet’s refusal to recognize the debt he incurred by drawing from the wealth of Islamic culture.  His salvation of Saladin, Avicenna and Averroës (all three placed in limbo along with the great figures representing the thinking and politics of Greco-Roman antiquity) is not enough to discharge the Tuscan poet’s debt.[5]  The amplitude of that debt is perceptible through the extraordinary poetic and metaphysical proximity of the Florentine’s work with that of his Murcian predecessor, Ibn ‘Arabi.[6]  Miguel Asin Palacios began in 1920 his impressive catalogue of convergences that Dante’s work presents with various Islamic antecedents.[7]  Since the time of the Spanish Jesuit’s intuition and research, historians have dwelt on the proof of the Islamic influence Dante experienced, especially through the tales that report the legend of the nighttime journey (isrâ), followed by the ascension  (mi’râj) in which the prophet of Islam goes in one night from Mecca to Jerusalem, before rising up into the heavens to meet the prophets who preceded him and to come as close as possible to the divine presence.[8]  As soon as Palacios’ book appeared, European resistance was strong; that a founding text of European literature had been shaped by Islamic influence seemed intolerable, prejudicial; some great thinkers even treated the Spanish scholar as an agitator, since he proffered them this piece of truth at the very instant when all of Italy was in the process of preparing for the celebrations that would honor the sixth centenary of Dante.[9]  

It seems difficult for a European, even an enlightened one, to admit that the one who constitutes the beginning of the creative historical development opening the way to literary modernity could be under Islamic influence.  Yet the example of Dante proves that the Mediterranean scene was until the beginning of the fourteenth century under the domination of Islamic culture.  Even in the recent discussions between Benoît Chantre and Philippe Sollers on Dante, this question remains off limits, it is out of the question:  the awareness of political urgency does not even cross the mind of the two interlocutors.[10]  Through the mere presence of Islam in France and elsewhere in Europe and in the West, such a question deserved at least to be recalled; it could constitute a pledge and an argument for our time, so rich in “interdependencies.”  Here is how Philippe Sollers reduces the space in which the “sacred poem” is deployed:

Dante is the diamond of Catholic art.  He condenses in his “sacred poem” all the possibilities that this art contains at its height.  Before him, the Greeks.  After him, modern times.  Through him, Latinity is refounded in the “dolce stil nuovo,” the Bible and especially the Psalms.[11]

I want to add:  “With Dante, and all the way down to you, the repression of Islam.” 

Edward Saïd thinks it would be more pertinent to think of the crisis and the tension our world is experiencing in terms of powerful and powerless communities, secular politics of reason and ignorance, universal principles of justice and injustice.[12]

As much as I agree with Saïd when he recalls Islam’s contribution to universality, I distance myself from him when he evades the specificity necessary for the understanding of its tendencies, if not its sickness.  Evoking the “terrible events of September 11th,” he says:

From this carefully planned huge massacre, from the horror these suicide attacks inspired by pathological motivations and executed by a small group of militants with disturbed minds, a proof has been offered of Huntington’s theory.  Instead of seeing these events for what they are, that is to say the forced appropriation of great ideas (I use the term in the sense of “large”) by a tiny group of fanatics whipped into a frenzy for criminal aims, international experts, from the ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, to the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, have pontificated on the troubles inherent in Islam.

But why not rather see the parallels, certainly less spectacular in their destructive potential, of Osama bin Laden and his partisans, in sects like the Branch Davidians, or the disciples of the preacher Jim Jones in Guyana, or even the members of Om Shinrikiyo in Japan?[13]

I was not aware of the analysis offered by Bhutto and I can only condemn the racist and imbecilic suggestions of Silvio Berlusconi, but this does not prevent me from reflecting on “the troubles inherent in Islam” which, unarguably, exist.  This book has sought to identify them and to analyze them.  I will make one more appeal to the use, as nuanced as possible, of the dialectic art to distinguish between the specific and the universal qualities of Islam.  It is even a duty of mankind to have recourse to that, at least to preserve human diversity, or what remains of it, in a time when interference and interdependence contribute to establishing uniformity.

I once knew a venerable sheikh, a great scholar of the religious sciences, a master with a prodigious memory who could effortlessly recite traditional pieces, and who was intimately familiar with the Qur’an, of which he was an expert interpreter.  He was full of prudence, all nuance and subtlety in his interpretations when he was in an untroubled state, far from the melancholic agonies of depression and not possessed by the raging excitation of the manic.  But if his chemical regulation became unbalanced, and if at the approach of his manic period the poorly prescribed lithium salts didn’t succeed at leveling the harshness that sends the patient into crisis, the system of Koranic reference changed.  Now the sheikh no longer cited the gentle, tolerant verses, full of compassion for those of other beliefs; he was excited by the warlike, fearsome sections of the Koran, and began to attack the traces of jâhiliyya and idolatry that still encumber the contemporary era.  If he had been allowed to act, he would have destroyed archaeological remains, statues or other traces of some pagan cult of images.  In his excitation, he was in the same state that led the Taliban to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan as well as the archeological pieces preserved in the museum in Kabul.  This portrait should be seen as an allegory that reveals the double face that Koranic literature has and that confirms that the sickness of Islam can be seen in the face of the maniac.

From this point of view, the Koran is a book similar to the Bible as Voltaire rediscovers it in his Traité sur la tolérance [Treatise on toleration].[14]  There is in monotheist revelations a warlike, fanatical, violent, frightening aspect.  It is this face that the sickness favors.  And the sickness spotted by Voltaire in his co-religionists also stems from the manic state: “The great method of diminishing the number of madmen, if some remain, is to abandon that sickness of the mind for the system of Reason, which slowly but infallibly enlightens mankind.'[15]

In Islam, this sickness has expressed itself many times throughout history.  It has manifested itself twice in the Muslim West, through the two dynasties of Berber origin, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries:  that of the Almoravids, followed by that of the Almohads.  The former advocated an elementary, exclusive, frustrated Malekism [trans;ator’s note: the Islamic legal system of North Africa].  They were, in the beginning, enemies of the arts.  After conquering Seville, they made enormous pyres of musical instruments; entire libraries fed the flames of their auto da fé.  Not even the works of Ghâzali (1058-1111) escaped, even though, from the depths of his eastern site, he had praised their military actions, which had broken the spirit of the Reconquista and reestablished order and unity in the Islamic realms of the Iberian peninsula.  The fanatic zeal of the Almohads is probably the source of the extinction of the native Christianity in the Maghreb, which was ancient and rooted as the Coptic Christianity of Egypt or the Arab, Syrian or Chaldean Christianity of the Near-East.  But it is always the same aspect of the Qur’an that is invoked by those who enthrone fanaticism and intolerance at the heart of their Islam.

[1]  Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs, summer 1993.  The article was subsequently developed into a book under the title The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1996).

[2]  Daryush Shayegan, La lumière vient de l’Occident [The light comes from the West] (l’Aube, La Tour d’Aigues, 2001) see especially chapter 3 of Book 1, “Le Choc des civilisations” [The clash of civilizations], 31-41.

[3]  Edward Saïd, “The Shock of Ignorance,” translated from the English by Françoise Cartano, Le Monde, October 27, 2001.

[4]  Dante, The Divine Comedy:  Inferno 23:22-36.

[5]  Ibid., they are mentioned respectively in lines 129, 143 and 144 of Canto 3 of Inferno.

[6]  Abdelwahab Meddeb, “Le Palimpseste du bilingue:  Ibn ‘Arabi et Dante,” in Du bilinguisme,(Paris:  Denoël, 1985) 125-140.

[7] Miguel Asin Palacios, L’Eschatologie musulmane dans “La Divine Comédie,” translated into French by Bernard Dubant (Milan:  Arché, 1992).  The first Spanish edition came out in Madrid in 1920.

[8]  Enrico Cerulli, “Il Libro della Scala” e la questione delle fonti arabo-spagnole della “Divina Commedia” (Vatican City:  Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1949.)  By the same author and publisher, see Nuove Ricerche sul “Libro della Scala” e la conoscenta dell’Islam in Occidente, 1972.  This Libro della Scala is now available in contemporary French; see Le Livre de l’Échelle de Mahomet (Paris:  Livre de Poche, Lettres gothiques).

[9]  Asin Palacios added to the second edition of his book (1944) a copious dossier entitled “History and critique of a polemics,” integrated into the French translation, 501-632.

[10]  Philippe Sollers, La Divine Comédie, discussions with Benoît Chantre (Paris:  DDB, 2000).

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Edward Saïd, “Shock of Ignorance.”

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Voltaire, Traité sur la tolérance [Treatise on toleration]  See chapter 12, described in the title:  “Whether intolerance was by divine law among the Jews, and if it was always put into practice,” 89-96.

[15]  Ibid., p. 56.

[to be continued]

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Comment on “Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (16)”

  1. Etymology is an interesting study but I wonder how many actually think of the origin of the words and phrases they use to discuss issues in the world of today. The modern attention span, having been reduced to that of a gnat or 140 characters or less, underscores this point. An 11th century secret order of assassins in Persia and Syria are not the assassins we think of when referencing ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or Al Nusra. Historical or etymological references rather lose their meaning when beheadings, rape and the destruction of antiquities are the order of the day in newsrooms everywhere. In the modern era, it would take a diligent and in depth search into academia to find anyone who makes this association. Like so many others, the word has evolved into common usage and has applications beyond any 11th century reference.

    It is difficult to argue with Huntington’s theory on the “clash of civilizations.” Haven’t most wars carried religion as their banner? Even in day to day life, the “other” raises its ugly head whether it be religion, language or colour. Many in French Canada still call the English the “Other.”

    The history of the world was foreign to most on this side of the pond when the U.S. and Canada came to be. Those with knowledge didn’t care much as there were larger demands, like building new countries out of the wilderness. Mind you, we all still seem to love our wilderness.

    The American conflict with Islam can trace its roots to the Barbary Wars which began once the former British colonies in America gained independence from Great Britain. Five Muslim countries of North Africa declared war; hijacking, stealing goods, kidnapping merchant U.S. sailors and selling them for ransom, or into slavery. The Barbary Wars were fought between 1801-1815 by the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It took two administrations of the new country, that of Washington and Adams, to build a sufficient Navy so that President Jefferson could first send the Navy and Marines in 1805. It was the first military conflict authorized by Congress that saw the United States fight on foreign land and on foreign seas. I’ve mentioned this before but it does give some historical context which, though also largely irrelevant, is at least not ancient history.

    The “venerable sheikh” allegory “… reveals the double face that Koranic literature has and that confirms that the sickness of Islam can be seen in the face of the maniac.” It is true that all religions seem to encourage the weird and the often violent. “There is in monotheist revelations a warlike, fanatical, violent, frightening aspect.” There is, however, no other religion within which such large segments favor terrorism and a return to the 7th century no matter how wack-a-doodle they may be. To the world at large, it is the fanatics that rule Islam at this moment in history. It is they who wage any one of 50 shooting wars worldwide. It is they who systematically slaughter Christian or tribal groups throughout Africa and the Mid-East. It is they who seem to be gradually taking over in an Islamic wave. It is they who bomb, behead, murder and rape. It is they who take over mosque after mosque. It is they who zealously spread the stoning and hanging of rape victims and homosexuals. It is they who teach their young to kill and to become suicide bombers.

    Peace-loving Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Rwandans, Serbs, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Somalis, Nigerians, Algerians and many others have died because the peaceful majority did not speak up until it was too late. How many millions died as a result of their silence? 200,000,000? More? And it is not just the silence. Worse yet is the failure to act not only in defence of their religion but in defence of their lives as well.

    “But why not rather see the parallels, certainly less spectacular in their destructive potential, of Osama bin Laden and his partisans, in sects like the Branch Davidians, or the disciples of the preacher Jim Jones in Guyana, or even the members of Om Shinrikiyo in Japan?”…Edward Said

    I mentioned the Branch Davidians and the Peoples Temple in a previous post. Unlike the Islamic terrorists, both clearly did more damage to themselves than to others. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult, gained international notoriety with its deadly sarin attacks in Tokyo. Although localized to Japan, they have been formally designated as a terrorist organization by several countries, including Canada and the United States. All 3 are wacko to be sure but nowhere in a league that includes ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or Al Nusra, among others.

    “But it is always the same aspect of the Qur’an that is invoked by those who enthrone fanaticism and intolerance at the heart of their Islam.”… Abdelwahab Meddeb

    Which, I believe, has long been my point. It may be warped but it is Islam just as the Kool Aid drinkers were Christian. In the end, it is only the religion and its teachers that can change anything.

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