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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (15)

March 9th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists


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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Nimrod (befoe ISIS), Peter Sloterdijk on Heidegger (in French), Samah Selim on Translation & Adaptation

March 8th, 2015 · Art, Islamic Fundamentalists, Middle East, Philosophy, Translation

& here for the weekend’s end a few items of interest in between the ongoing Meddeb / Malady of Islam serialization:

Much angered by the destruction of Nimrod & other archeological sites. Must be the first time I am thankful (put that word under erasure) for the British & French colonial greed that stole & stored much of the moveable treasures in their museums.

Nimroud : à quoi ressemble la cité antique… by lemondefr

& a digital reconstruction by the MET:

If you have French, the following is a treat:

Colloque «Heidegger et “les juifs”» – Peter… by laregledujeu

“If you were not in Cairo on February 17, or for some other reason missed Samah Selim’s must-hear talk — on the nature of translation, adaptation, genre-invention, and a few other things — then, lucky you, the video has been uploaded to YouTube”:

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Uri Avnery on “The Speech”

March 7th, 2015 · Iran, Israel, Man-made Disaster

March 7, 2015

SUDDENLY IT reminded me of something.

I was watching The Speech by Binyamin Netanyahu before the Congress of the United States. Row upon row of men in suits (and the occasional woman), jumping up and down, up and down, applauding wildly, shouting approval.

It was the shouting that did it. Where had I heard that before?

And then it came back to me. It was another parliament in the mid-1930s. The Leader was speaking. Rows upon rows of Reichstag members were listening raptly. Every few minutes they jumped up and shouted their approval.

Of course, the Congress of the United States of America is no Reichstag. Members wear dark suits, not brown shirts. They do not shout “Heil” but something unintelligible. Yet the sound of the shouting  had the same effect. Rather shocking.

But then I returned to the present. The sight was not frightening, but ridiculous. Here were the members of the most powerful parliament in the world behaving like a bunch of nincompoops.

Nothing like this could have happened in the Knesset. I do not have a very high opinion of our parliament, despite having been a member, but compared to this assembly, the Knesset is the fulfillment of Plato’s dream.

ABBA EBAN once compared a speech by Menachem Begin to a French souffle cake: a lot of air and very little dough.

The same could be said about The Speech.

What did it contain?  The Holocaust, of course, with that moral impostor, Elie Wiesel, sitting in the gallery right next to the beaming Sarah’le, who visibly relished her husband’s triumph. (A few days before, she had shouted at the wife of a mayor in Israel: “Your man does not reach the ankles of my man!”)

The Speech mentioned the Book of Esther, about the salvation of the Persian Jews from the evil Persian minister Haman, who intended to wipe them out. No one knows how this dubious composition came to be included in the Bible. God is not mentioned in it, it has nothing to do with the Holy Land, and Esther herself is more of a prostitute than a heroine. The book ends with the mass murder committed by the Jews against the Persians.

The Speech, like all speeches by Netanyahu, contained much about the suffering of the Jews throughout the ages, and the intentions of the evil Iranians, the New Nazis, to annihilate us. But this will not happen, because this time we have Binyamin Netanyahu to protect us. And the US Republicans, of course.    

It was a good speech. One cannot make a bad speech when hundreds of admirers hang on every word and applaud every second. But it will not make an anthology of the world’s Greatest Speeches.

Netanyahu considers himself a second Churchill. And indeed, Churchill was the only foreign leader before Netanyahu to speak to both houses of Congress a third time. But Churchill came to cement his alliance with the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who played a big part in the British war effort, while Netanyahu has come to spit in the face of the present president.

WHAT DID the speech not contain? 

Not a word about Palestine and the Palestinians. Not a word about peace, the two-state solution, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem. Not a word about apartheid, the occupation, the settlements. Not a word about Israel’s own nuclear capabilities.

Not a word, of course, about the idea of a nuclear-weapon–free region, with mutual inspection.

Indeed, there was no concrete proposal at all. After denouncing the bad deal in the making, and hinting that Barack Obama and John Kerry are dupes and idiots, he offered no alternative.

Why? I assume that the original text of The Speech contained a lot. Devastating new sanctions against Iran. A demand for the total demolition of all Iranian nuclear installations. And in the inevitable end: a US-Israeli military attack.

All this was left out. He was warned by the Obama people in no uncertain terms that disclosure of details of the negotiations would be considered as a betrayal of confidence. He was warned by his Republican hosts that the American public was in no mood to hear about yet another war.

What was left? A dreary recounting of the well-known facts about the negotiations. It was the only tedious part of the speech. For minutes no one jumped up, nobody shouted approval. Elie Wiesel was shown sleeping. The most important person in the hall, Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Congress republicans and of Netanyahu, was not shown at all. But he was there, keeping close watch on his servants.

BY THE way, whatever happened to Netanyahu’s war?

Remember when the Israel Defense Forces were about to bomb Iran to smithereens? When the US military might was about to “take out” all Iranian nuclear installations?

Readers of this column might also remember that years ago I assured them that there would be no war. No ifs, no buts. No half-open back door for a retreat. I asserted that there would be no war, period.

Much later, all Israeli former military and intelligence chiefs spoke out against the war. The army Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, who finished his term this week, has disclosed that no draft operation order for attacking Iran’s nuclear capabilities was ever drawn up.

Why? Because such an operation could lead to a world-wide catastrophe. Iran would immediately close the Strait of Hormuz, just a few dozen miles wide, through which some 35% of the world’s sea-borne oil must pass. It would mean an immediate world-wide economic breakdown.

To open the Strait and keep it open, a large part of Iran would have to be occupied in a land war, boots on the ground. Even Republicans shiver at the thought.

Israeli military capabilities fall far short of such an adventure. And, of course, Israel cannot dream of starting a war without express American consent.

That is reality. Not speechifying. Even American senators are capable of seeing the difference.

THE CENTERPIECE of The Speech was the demonization of Iran. Iran is evil incarnate. It leaders are subhuman monsters. All over the world, Iranian terrorists are at work planning monstrous outrages. They are building intercontinental ballistic missiles to destroy the US. Immediately after obtaining nuclear warheads – now or in ten years – they will annihilate Israel.

In reality, Israel’s second-strike capability, based on the submarines supplied by Germany, would annihilate Iran within minutes. One of the most ancient civilizations in world history would come to an abrupt end. The ayatollahs would have to been clinically insane to do such a thing.

Netanyahu pretends to believe they are. Yet for years now, Israel has been conducting an amiable arbitration with the Iranian government about the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline across Israel built by an Iranian-Israeli consortium. Before the Islamic revolution, Iran was Israel’s stoutest ally in the region. Well after the revolution, Israel supplied Iran with arms in order to fight against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (the famous Irangate affair). And if one goes back to Esther and her sexual effort to save the Jews, why not mention Cyrus the Great, who allowed the Judean captives to return to Jerusalem?

Judging by its behavior, the present Iranian leadership has lost some of its initial religious fervor. It is behaving (not always speaking) in a very rational way, conducting tough negotiations as one would expect from Persians, aware of their immense cultural heritage, even more ancient than Judaism. Netanyahu is right in saying that one should not trust them with closed eyes, but his demonization is ridiculous.

Within the wider context, Israel and Iran are already indirect allies. For both, the Islamic State (ISIS) is the mortal enemy. To my mind, ISIS is far more dangerous to Israel, in the long run, than Iran. I imagine that for Tehran, ISIS is a far more dangerous enemy than Israel.

(The only memorable sentence in The Speech was “the enemy of my enemy is my enemy”.)

If the worst comes to the worst, Iran will have its bomb in the end. So what?

I may be an arrogant Israeli, but I refuse to be afraid. I live a mile from the Israeli army high command in the center of Tel Aviv, and in a nuclear exchange I would evaporate. Yet I feel quite safe.

The United States has been exposed for decades (and still is) to thousands of Russian nuclear bombs, which could eradicate millions within minutes. They feel safe under the umbrella of the “balance of terror”. Between us and Iran, in the worst situation, the same balance would come into effect. 

WHAT IS Netanyahu’s alternative to Obama’s policy? As Obama was quick to point out, he offered none.

The best possible deal will be struck. The danger will be postponed for ten years or more. And, as Chaim Weizmann once said: “The future will come and take care of the future.”

Within these ten years, many things will happen. Regimes will change, enmities will turn into alliances and vice versa. Anything is possible.

Even – God and the Israeli voters willing – peace between Israel and Palestine, which would take the sting out of Israeli-Muslim relations.

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (14)

March 6th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(14th installment)

P a r t  I V

The Western Exclusion of Islam


Sacrifice and secretiveness have often been mentioned in explaining how the terrorists acted on September 11.  We should be careful when analyzing these two characteristics, and not try to shed light on them only by invoking Islamic history and culture.  These terrorists are as much children of their time and of a world transformed by Americanization as they are the product of an internal evolution, unique to Islam.  Nonetheless it is true that Bernard Lewis’ book devoted to the Assassins confronts the reader with troubling analogies which he will be tempted to project onto the actions of the terrorists belonging to al Qa’ida.(1)

The agents who, on September 11, committed suicide while killing others are even more clearly illuminated by Dostoyevskian nihilism.  I imagine their personal experiences as close to those of the characters described in The Possessed, with perhaps less hysteria and more effectiveness in their actions.  Actually, the recent attacks seem to be the product of a condensation of all the forms of revolutionary action.  If the ideological content of revolutionary movements varies from system to system, it is still certain that the method which unites secrecy with suicide will end up failing, despite the terrible blows it strikes against established States. 

The frequency of references to the Ismailians is more Western than Islamic.  From the time of the Crusades forward, it has been the European historians and chroniclers of the end of the twelfth through the thirteenth century who contributed to the fabrication of the myth of the Assassins (Gerhard, envoy of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in Egypt and Syria, William, Archbishop of Tyre, the chronicler Arnold de Lübeck, the English historian Matthew Paris, the monk Yves the Breton, Joinville, the chronicler of Saint Louis, Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, the travelers William of Rubruck, Marco Polo and, half a century later, Odoric of Pordenone, etc.).  Through their reports, accounts, and chronicles the figure of the Assassin was made famous:  a person completely subject to his master, ready to seize the dagger the master holds out to him and plunge it into the chest of the victim the master designates.  The influence the Master of Alamût had over his accomplices has been romanticized at every possible opportunity.  Beyond the magical dimension attributed to this wonder-working master, the medieval witnesses of Europe imagined the setting of a Muslim paradise, a shadowy garden where girls and Adonises dabble ready to welcome disciples and initiate them into the voluptuousness that awaits them in the true Garden of Delights promised as an eternal resting place to those who sacrifice themselves for the master’s cause.  This fantasy was assimilated with the material reasoning that explained the control over captive souls and their unswerving obedience.

In modern times, the first ideological uses of the Ismailian phenomenon were also Western.  With the memory still fresh of the Revolutionary terror, the beginning of the nineteenth century, haunted by political crime, revived the memory of the Assassins.  The Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer, writing a History of the Assassins, made these Assassins the universal model of conspirators, members of secret societies who “prostitute” religion to serve their ambition.  He also likened to Assassins all those whom he perceived as spreaders of discord during the past centuries or among his contemporaries:  with them are identified the Templars, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the regicides of the Convention.

Just as in the West revolutionary societies were engendered by Freemasonry, so, in the East, the Assassins came from Ismailism…  The insanity of the Illuminati, who thought that through simple preaching they could free the nations from the tutelage of princes and from the chains of religious practice, was revealed in the most terrible way in the effects of the French Revolution, as it was in Asia under the reign of Hassan…(2)

The Assassins have been evoked again to denounce the extremism of Italian or Macedonian nationalists, clandestine militants and violent terrorists who bloodied the European soil later on in the same nineteenth century. Thus the reference to the Ismailians, offered as a key to interpret the attacks of al Qa’ida, agrees more with the terrorist act than to its Islamist origin.  Through the disaster in New York, the myth of the Assassins is again used to shed light on a massacre whose motivation is political and whose success is due to the combination of dissimulation and sacrifice.

The leader of the Assassins, Hassan-i Sabbâh, in his turn became a literary myth in the West.  The initiator of this was Edward Fitzgerald who, in the preface to his translation of the quatrains of Omar Khayyâm, repeated a tale spread by Persian literary tradition.  Hassan-i Sabbâh, Omar Khayyâm and Nizâm al-Mulk were the disciples of the same master.  They took an oath that the first who succeeded would come to the aid of the two others.  When Nizâm al-Mulk became vizier to the Seljuk sultan, his former co-disciples reminded him of the pact between them.  He offered them posts as governors that they both refused.  Omar Khayyâm contented himself with a pension that left him with his freedom and his passion for poetry and mathematics.  Hassan-i Sabbâh asked for an important position in the court, which he obtained.  But soon he developed the ambition to rival Nizâm al-Mulk for the position of vizier.  The latter then conspired against him and discredited him with the sultan.  Hassan-i Sabbâh vowed to take revenge.  In this way his seditious plan was born, which he concretized by going to Cairo, the capital of the Fatimid caliphate, to strengthen his involvement in favor of the Ismailians. 

Nizâm al-Mulk was born at the latest in 1020 and was assassinated in 1092.  Omar Khayyâm was born in 1048 and died in 1131.  If the date of Hassan-i Sabbâh’s birth is unknown, we know that he died in 1124.  Keeping these dates in mind, it is hardly likely that all three could have been students at the same time.  For most modern researchers, this picturesque tale is a fable.(4)

But the myth was launched.  Many writers seized it and illustrated it in works that turn out to be deceptive when they take the form of a historical novel.  From this body of work, I will mention one of the last appearances of the figure who founded the fortress of Alamût in the mountains of Alburz, near the Caspian Sea:  in Cities of the Red Night, William Burroughs imagines an America in the hands of libertine pirates, and his fiction is preceded by an “invocation,” which begins by announcing that “this book is dedicated to the Ancients” and which ends the list of dedicatees with the “nameless divinities of dispersion and emptiness” and with “Hassan I Sabbah (sic), master of the Assassins.”(5)  The evocation of this character in a libertarian literary context seems to me much more in agreement with the esoteric theory that underlies Hassan-i Sabbâh’s political project. 

In fact, Hassan-i Sabbâh sought to destabilize Sunnite society by creating a political terrorism to honor an eschatological call, intended to precipitate the return of the hidden imam, and to proclaim the qiyâma, the Resurrection, in which the law is abolished in order to give way to a systematically transgressive way of life.  The epoch of the abolished Divine Law was proclaimed by Hassan-i Sabbâh’s successors, and was lived out in the jubilation that the lifting of prohibitions produces, in Alamût as well as in the fortresses of the Syrian mountains.  The ideological horizon of the political terror invented by the Ismailians presents no affinity whatever with the person who directs the actions of those fundamentalists and Wahhabites who people the networks of al Qa’ida, who dream only of imposing shariah law on the world, the same shariah that was abolished by the Assassins.  In fact, the heroes of the medieval insurrection prove to be heralds of the anarchist movements of modern times, while the terrorists who are our contemporaries wallow in a terrible regressive archaism, determined to apply the letter of the law that the Ismailians had abolished, after they had extracted its hidden meaning through recourse to interpretative science.  According to the hermeneutic system of the Ismailians, the letter of the Koran that is revealed to the Prophet remains a dead letter if the imam does not give it life by illuminating the secret it conceals, one that is in his authority to disclose.  The fundamentalist Wahhabites’ approach to Koranic literature is the complete opposite of the esoteric Ismailians:  the former are maniacs of the apparent meaning, the latter devote a cult to the hidden meaning.  Within the Islamic landscape Wahhabism and Ismailism constitute two irreconcilable positions. 

This incompatibility is not just doctrinal; it also concerns the method of action.  The Assassins never proceeded to blind massacres, aiming at innocent victims; and they never attacked foreign targets, aside from the execution of the Marquis Conrad de Montferrat, king of Jerusalem (April 28, 1192), on orders of the formidable Sinân (died 1193), the true “old man of the mountain,” named by Hassan-i Sabbâh to direct the Syrian branch (he lived in the Castle of Masyaf and coordinated the activities of the surrounding fortresses).  And even this execution was not gratuitous:  its aim was to revive dissension among the ranks of the Franks, which in fact arose, since Coeur de Lion was suspected of having ordered the crime.  Otherwise, all the victims of the Ismailians were politicians, members of the army, religious practitioners, administrators, intellectuals belonging to the Sunnite state apparatus (from caliph to sultan, from vizier to prefect, from mufti to cadi, from governor to scholar).  Here again, there is a staggering difference between the Ismailians practicing deliberate assassinations, and the contemporary terrorism, blinded by the power of the symbol and the search for shock-images designed to last as long as possible on the ephemeral scene of news programmed for a society that accords its attention only to spectacular events. 

The other distinction is qualitative.  From the Wahhabites to the Ismailians, an interstellar distance separates the oversimplifications of fundamentalist ideology from the sophistication of theories developed by intellectuals who constructed cosmologies in harmony with a cyclical vision of history, associating each era with a prophet accompanied by his own interpreter, who enriches the literature of the Revelation.  Ismailian thinking evolved toward an adoption of Neo-Platonism and the cult of the intellect, the imprint of which is seen through the epistles that make up the encyclopedia written by the Brothers of Purity in the tenth century:  this text, which was distributed throughout all of Islam, still preserves a freshness that brings pleasure to the contemporary reader.  The spiritual legacy of the Ismailians thus bears no comparison with the destitute productions of the fundamentalists and Wahhabites, of which I have given a few samples that are, to say the least, repellent in their intellectual poverty and their fanaticism.  The horizon of thought traced by the Ismailians attracted the greatest thinkers of the time, like Nâsîr ad-Dîn Tûsî (1201-1274), doctor, physicist, philosopher, mathematician and especially astronomer, founder of the famous observatory of Maragha in the province of Azerbaijan.  Or like Nâsir-e Khusraw (1004-c. 1078), author of a book of travels(6) that unites the topographer’s exposition with the descriptive art of the novelist.  This book constitutes a precious historical document, which helps to reconstruct the state of eleventh-century Jerusalem or Cairo.  Its author is also a poet who confesses in odes to his doubts and the perplexity his interior debates arouse in him.  Similarly, he practices ta’wîl, the hermeneutics that extracts the profound meaning of Islamic practices and dogmas.  As a philosopher, he tries in his Jâmi’ al-Hikmatayn to reconcile the language of the Koran with the logical discourse of the speculative sciences.

If, in order to spread knowledge and establish the worship of God, we expect to wait till the tyranny of ignorance is eradicated from living beings, then these beings will leave this world still ignorant and rebellious.  No, wise men are like fruit trees that stand laden with their fruit; seekers of wisdom are like famished children, agile, clever and cunning; the ignorant are like beasts of burden who drag themselves along, head to the ground, dulled, unable to look up at the tree, or even to know that there is anything in the tree.  The children pick juicy, fresh, sweet, tasty fruit from the trees, and nourish themselves with it, while the beasts do not even suspect what they are doing.(7)

If the ghost of Nâsir-e Khosraw returned among us and was made aware of the deeds and writings of our fundamentalists, there is no doubt he would liken them to the ignorant creatures he had compared to animals, who can neither see the tree of wisdom nor discern the fruits that cover its branches.

[1]  Bernard Lewis, The Assassins:  A Radical Sect in Islam, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1987.  [Translated into French as Les Assassins, terrorisme et politique dans l’Islam médiéval, by Annick Pélissier, Brussels:  Éditions Complexe, 2001.]

[2]  Joseph von Hammer, History of Assassins Derived from Oriental Sources, Burt Franklin, 1935 [reprinted from the German edition of 1818]. 

[3]  Ibid., 182.

[4] Lewis, Assassins, 77.

[5]  William Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night, New York:  Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.  [Meddeb uses a French translation by Philippe Mikriammos called Les Cités de la nuit écarlate, p. 14, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1981.]

[6]  Nâsiri Khosrau, Sefer Nameh, Relation de voyage [Sefer Nameh:  Travelogue], translated from the Persian by Charles Schefer, Paris, 1881.

[7]  Nâsir-e Khosraw, Le Livre réunissant les deux sagesses [The book joining together the two wisdoms], translated from the Persian by Isabelle de Gastines, (Paris:  Fayard, 1990), 321-2.


Two remarks in Bernard Lewis’ book invite the reader to connect the Ismailian phenomenon with contemporary terrorism.  The new method invented by Hassan-i Sabbâh consists in using

a small disciplined and devoted force, capable of effectively striking a considerably superior enemy.  “Terrorism,” writes a modern author, “is maintained by a narrowly limited organization and is inspired by a sustained program of large-scale objectives in the name of which terror is applied.”(8)

And the last paragraph of Assassins is an explicit summons to find an echo of the medieval terrorism of the Ismailians in our current affairs:

…The wave of messianic hope and revolutionary violence that had carried them along continued to roll, and their methods and ideals have found a number of imitators.  And the great upheavals of our time have provided those imitators with new causes for anger, new dreams of fulfillment and new instruments of combat.(9)

This summons gains in intensity when terrorism emanates from some Islamic site:  at once people refer to the Assassins as if it were a basic part of Islamic culture, absolutely legitimate and completely obvious.  It turns out to be exactly what happens when people discover that Palestinian fighters use the same term as the one that designated the Ismailian agents of political assassination:  both call themselves fidâ’i, a word that derives from the root f.d.y., which means to buy someone back at the price of a ransom to save his life or free him.  This word is used in a fixed expression, fadaytuka (“I am buying you back at the price of my life”), to express limitless devotion:  fidâ’i is thus one who is ready to sacrifice himself for the cause.  From the point of view of the differentialists, that explains the sacrifice of September 11.  Yet Bernard Lewis himself admits that there is no place for human sacrifice or for ritual murder in Islamic law, tradition, or practice.(10)

On the other hand, it is possible to elucidate the question of martyrdom from Islamic history and theology.  The martyr is one who falls on the path of God, he is shahîd, a “witness.”  The word comes from the root sh.h.d. which means to be present at, to attend something, to bear witness to something, to testify, to render a solemn testimony with an oath to the truth of a thing. Thence, to utter a declaration of Muslim faith (“There is no god other than God”); and in the passive (ushhida), to be killed in war while fighting for religion, or to suffer martyrdom, to be wholly summoned as witness to Muslim faith.  And shahîd changes the voice of the verb into a substantive: it means true witness, truthful in his testimony, who knows everything, who has omniscience, martyr for the Muslim faith (either killed in holy war or who had suffered martyrdom), and, by extension, who died from any death other than natural death (drowning, plague, killed in self-defense).  In its first meaning, we find the same etymological meaning as that of “martyr,” emanating from the Greek martur, a late form of martus, marturos “witness” (in legal terminology).(11)

When one dies for the cause of God, to what is one a witness? Perhaps to the face of God, which is the sign of being chosen and of the beatific sojourn, the guarantee of eternal residence in paradise.  The words that stem from the root sh.h.d. are many in the Koranic text, and they are essentially oriented in two senses:  that of legal witnessing and that of omniscience.  The word shahîd is almost exclusively devoted to God who witnesses everything, who testifies to everything, who sees everything, in short the omniscient God.  And shuhadâ are not martyrs:  they are rather the legal witnesses and the witnesses of truth after God.  I would say that the Koranic sense of the word remains generic and is distributed as witness of truth both on the legal axis and on the metaphysical axis:  to testify to the truth of a deed (of adultery, for instance), to testify to the truth of God as this truth appears in revelations transmitted by his messenger, the prophets.  There is only one verse that anticipates the figure of the martyr: “Above all do not believe that those who were killed on the path of God are dead; they are living next to their Lord, provided with goods.”(12)

Fakhr ad-Dîn Râzî (1149-1209), taking up the exegetic tradition, recalls first that this verse concerns the martyrs (he uses the word shuhadâ’) of the two battles led during the time of the Prophet against the Qoraïshites, the battles of Badr (March 624) and of Uhud (November 625).  He then says that the prepositional phrase “next to” (‘inda), in the sentence, “they are living next to their Lord,” is the same one that places the angels in their divine proximity:  which gives those who die as martyrs of the jihad the bliss of angels during the celestial stay in the divine dwelling.(13)  That is the scriptural basis that legitimizes the holy war and clarifies the reward awaiting the martyr.  This basis has been submitted to all sorts of manipulations to construct the mythology of martyrdom.  It has been used over and over in our time, notably during the wars of national liberation against colonialism.  The Algerian nationalist fighter was called mudjahid, or one who devotes himself to the jihad, the holy war, the victims of which are “living next to their Lord,” enjoying a proximity, a beatitude, and a joy equal to that of angels; they are touched by the blessing of angelic light.

It remains to be determined if the passage from war to guerrilla warfare and terrorism still justifies the notions of jihad and shahîd.  That is where the brute access to literature invites all sorts of manipulations. In the spectrum of present interpretation, opinions vary.  Those who advocate minimal interpretation invoke the holy war and all its mythology in cases of attack and situations of self-defense, as is the case for nationalist struggles.  The Palestinian question is included in this minimal position.  And the maximal position is, for instance, expressed in many books by Sayyid Qutb, who attacks those scholars who minimize the range of jihad:  he calls for its intensification and its universalization to make Islamic law triumph on the scale of all humanity, for such law is considered the ultimate expression of divine truth.(14) 

The terrorist fundamentalists claim to follow this interpretation in conducting their violent actions:  those who carried out the September 11th attacks must have thought they were martyrs of this universal jihad, not dead at all but living next to their Lord.  Such is the conviction that devotes them to sacrifice and makes them internalize the mythology of martyrdom, in an elemental drama that requires them to purify their bodies beforehand for the celestial honeymoon that awaits them.  This naïve scenography takes us far from the angelic interpretation proposed by the rationalist interpreter of the twelfth century.  But such is the scriptural basis on which we project the representations that best illustrate the need to compensate for the frustrations we undergo during our earthly stay.

It seems to me that this scriptural basis and its maximalist interpretation suffice to explain the choice of death by the terrorists of September 11.  There is no need to have recourse to the Ismailians or to the idea of sacrifice as it appears among the Shiites.  The latter are perceived as the downtrodden ones of Islam; they think they have undergone an injustice.  The idea of martyrdom was exacerbated among them because their model was one of the imams they venerated the most, Husayn, one of the sons of ’Ali, massacred in Kerbala in an abominable way (on October 10, 680).  This massacre is considered by the Shiites as their primal scene, which they celebrate every year.  Thus they have a cult of martyrdom, in the Christian sense of the word.  It is a martyrdom that preserves the guilt of not having been ready to sacrifice oneself to defend the imam and prevent his massacre.  In this kind of martyrdom, the notion of buying back and of redemption exists.  The imam let himself be massacred; he sacrificed himself so that his blood could redeem those who believe in him.  It is a matter of a ceremonial and a ritual grieving intended to appease a guilty conscience.  The celebration of this sacrifice has no relationship with jihad or the martyr, the shahîd who joins his rank in divine proximity when he loses his life while fighting on the path of God.

The idea of martyrdom, which accompanies terrorism, reappeared on the Near Eastern scene following a terrorist act that belongs to another cultural tradition:  the first kamikazes of the present Near East are the three militants of the Nihon Sekigun (the Japanese Red Army) who, on May 30, 1972, carried out a suicide attack on the airport in Lod.  Qadafi even wondered why the Palestinians wouldn’t use this method.(15) 

After the September 11th attacks, the government directed by Sharon immediately likened the New York attack to the ones that Israel undergoes because of the Palestinians.  And the Arab governments allied with the United States were careful to make a distinction between the terrorism of resistance and the terrorism of the jihad proclaimed against the West by al Qa’ida.  They refused to equate these two types of terrorism.  Those nations intervened so that the United States wouldn’t add organizations like the Palestinian Hamas or the Lebanese Hezbollah, which they called organizations of resistance, to their condemned list.  The press, as well as the Arab political classes, created this dogmatic distinction, reminding us of the terrorism of the French and European Resistance against Nazi occupation, as well as the recourse to such weapons by Jewish organizations during the struggle that led to the creation of Israel.  In the Palestinian case, the terrorist act, in its very horror, is comparable to the weapon of a weak man whose despair is amplified by the hatred caused by impotent rage. 

The question of sacrifice is thus posed through the terrorism practiced on the Near Eastern scene.  A veritable mythology of martyrdom and sacrifice was constructed by the Hezbollah, drawing perhaps from the cult of martyrdom as it survives in the Shiite circles of South Lebanon.  A form of ceremonial and iconography in keeping with myth were elaborated to prepare the suicide candidate for the honeymoon that awaits him in the Garden of Delights, peopled with virgins with large black eyes.  In this dramaturgy, I see the last anthropomorphic, literalist reincarnation of contemporary fundamentalism, which turns out to be as elementary in its fictions as in its approach to the meaning present in the Koranic text.

As for me, I have already become radical in my rejection of the terrorist act, whatever its motive.  I know how terrorism exercised in the name of a noble cause can be perverted by myth and re-arise in political culture.  I will cite what I wrote about this in my introduction to the issue of the journal Dédale devoted to Jerusalem:

As to terrorism and Islamist extremism, I will be decisive:  both represent the unacceptable for me, nothing can legitimize them, and I stand completely and with all my strength against it, even if I feel powerless before their intrigues; but I fight them and will continue to fight them by the means I have, that is to say through writing and speech that denounce the scandal they project on the world’s screens.  I take this irrevocable position simultaneously with their sacrificial and bloody acts.

As to terrorism, I take on the lineage of Camus, who was one of the rare people to have the lucidity to refuse this barbarism, whatever its cause; it was, you will remember, in the 50’s, during the Algerian War; and Camus was isolated in the Parisian intellectual scene; and, twenty years later, I counted myself as one of his detractors; but it is not from infidelity or from a taste for recanting that I have changed my position; it is time, the revelator, that dispenses justice to those who have kept their lucidity in apartness and solitude.  Why should we repeat the transgressions of the past when a prior example appears openly in the light of day? I will add that the experience of terrorism for a noble national cause got recorded in the nation’s memory as glory and not as horror.  Thus it turned into a fact of culture, and a habitual recourse.  Now the Algerians learn that this weapon has been turned against them.(16)

Islam does not practice human sacrifice.  To carry out their terrorist actions, contemporary fundamentalists have redirected the idea of sacrifice and have acclimated it to the Islamic imagination by a series of manipulations.  On the other hand, every year the Muslim celebrates Abraham’s sacrifice, based on an action of substitution in which God redeems the son for an animal.  Abraham’s sacrifice is recounted in the Koran:

When the son was of an age to accompany his father, he [the father] said:  “O my son! I saw in a dream that I sacrificed (adhbahuka) you; what do you think of that?” He said:  “O my father, do what is commanded of you; you will find me, if God wishes, among the patient.”/ After they had accepted God’s decision, and Abraham had thrown down his son, forehead on the ground,/ we cried out to him:  “O Abraham/ you have authenticated the vision, this is how we recompense those who do good./ That is truly an indisputable test.”/ We bought him back (fadaynâ-hu) with a victim destined for a major sacrifice (dhabh).(17)

Thus, in the very text of the Koran the link between ransom and sacrifice can be found.  And we find the same root dh.b.h., implied by the verb “to sacrifice” and by “the victim destined for sacrifice”; its primary meaning is “to split, to tear up, to break,” whence “to slice the throat,” to kill by cutting the throat of cattle, and, by the same procedure, to sacrifice a victim or to kill a man without pity.

In the Scriptures of Islam, it is said that Abraham’s sacrifice constitutes “an indisputable test.”  This evaluation predisposes the scene to tragic interpretation.  In his commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, Averroës, unaware of the corpus of Greek tragedians, saw in Abraham’s sacrifice the best illustration of one of the characteristics of the genre stressed by the Stagirite:(18)  tragedy must arouse fear and pity by presenting “the arising of violence within relationships.”(19)  And Goethe illustrates by Abraham and Agamemnon the katharsis associated with human sacrifice:

In tragedy, katharsis is realized through a sort of human sacrifice, whether it is actually accomplished or only in the form of a surrogate, thanks to the intervention of some benevolent divinity, as in the case of Abraham or Agamemnon.(20)

I experienced this range of tragic feeling when as a child I attended the annual throat-cutting of an animal in commemoration of Abraham’s act and to give thanks to God who, through his gift of the animal, had redeemed the son.  That is probably a way of celebrating the historical transcendence of human sacrifice.  Thus the actual celebration of this symbol makes the Muslim familiar with the death-rattle that accompanies the cut throat.  After this gesture, the child I was saw the blood smoking out of the animal flow out until the last drop and follow its red course toward the sluice, on the paved slope of one of the paths that separated the flowerbeds.  I could not help but think of this commemoration of Abraham’s gesture when the scenes of slaughter of entire families reached us from Algeria, the work of the GIA, which had emerged from the Afghan crucible with the complicity and blessing of the members of al Qa’ida.  The ceremony of blood shed from the animal makes me think of that other form of sacrifice, due not this time to the suicide of the terrorist, but to the way in which the fundamentalist makes himself the priest of an Islamic adaptation of the ritual crime — an additional perversion, which abolishes the divine ransom and reverses substitution, by going from animal to man:  living the reality of symbolic sacrifice by sacrificing the animal with one’s own hands does not save one from the madness that seizes someone when he decides to reproduce a symbolic gesture in a real action (which literally defines insanity).  To live the symbolism in the reality of bloodshed perhaps predisposes someone to this swing towards madness.(21)

8.  Bernard Lewis, Assassins, 175.

9.  Ibid, 186.

10.  Ibid, 172.

11.  Alain Rey, Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, (Paris:  Dictionnaire Le Robert, 1992) 2:1198.

12.  Qur’an 3:169.

13.  Fakhr ad-Dîn Râzi, Mafâtîh al-Ghayb, 9:72-77.

14.  Sayyid Qutb, Khasâ’s at-Tasawwur al-Islamî wa Muqawwimâtibi, 20.

15.  See the article that recounts this event by Michaël Prazan in Libération, September 14, 2001.

16.  Abdelwahab Meddeb, “Le partage,” Dédale, Multiple Jérusalem.

17.  Qur’an, 37:102-107.

18.  Averroës, Talkhis Kitâb Arist’ût’alîs fî-Shi’r,  in an appendix of translations in ancient and modern Arabic of The Poetics by Aberrahman Badawi, (Beirut, 1973), 220.

19.  Aristotle, The Poetics, translation by Roselyne Dupont-Roc and Jean Lalo (Paris:  Le Seuil, 1981) 53b 19, chapter 14, p. 81.

20.  Goethe, “Supplementary remarks on Aristotle’s Poetics (1827),” p. 257, in Ecrits sur l’art, texts chosen and translated by Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Paris:  Klincksieck, 1983.

21.  Abdelwahab Meddeb, “Cous coupés” [Cut necks], pp. 65-7, in Algérie, textes et dessins inédits [Algeria:  unpublished texts and drawings], (Casablanca:  Le Fennec, 1995).

[to be continued on Monday, 9 March]

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (13)

March 5th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(13th installment)


Fundamentalism Against the West


I would like to take up again the question of the decline, and to understand the gap that separates ancient Islam from present Islam, to grasp the causes that led from splendor to wretchedness.  Bîrûni, you will recall, contrasts the elite with the common, the few with the many, by distinguishing, in idolatry, between those who study abstract principles and those who are content with physical appearances.  It is the dichotomy between khâśa and ‘âma, between the elite and the ordinary, that gives structure to the Islam of greatness. 

These categories are at work in all realms of society and in all expressions of culture.  The writers, thinkers, and poets I have quoted in previous pages invoke a hierarchy whose degrees are divided up in the light of this dichotomy.  We find its effect in Averroes when he considers the meaning of the Koranic literature:  the elite is obliged to interpret by arguments that can be apprehended only by analysis, while the mass keeps to the obvious meaning.[1]  The same distinction is present in Sufism and the spiritual experience.  It is active in Ibn ‘Arabi through his theory of the image which I mentioned earlier.  Even the masters of nescience and unknowing discern between elite and common people.  Following the example of Bistâmi (778-849) whose inspiration is marked by the ladder of the elect, and who does not place the initiate (‘ârif) and the commoner on the same level.[2] 

Yet another example is Shams ud-Din of Tabriz (thirteenth century), the vagabond foreigner, the invulnerable wanderer whose arrival, and enigmatic disappearance, overwhelmed the master Jalâluddîn Rûmî (1207-1273) and branded him with the iron of passion.  By converting the master from Konya, Shams became the master of the master; he belongs to the first rank that the Sufis call khâsat al-khâsa, elite of the elite.  His mastery is based on the ability to make the invisible God visible.  And this ability is not comparable to ordinary mastery.  Being the master of the master, he revives the love that makes one mad, and forces Rûmî, who had become his disciple, to renounce his high status and share his retreat in his cell.  After the unexplained disappearance of his initiator, Rûmî, inconsolable, composed the scorched poems that the burning of nostalgia inspires.  Shams abolished the learned scholar in Rûmî to bring the poet to life.  Master of the master, he “is both the most powerful of men and the weakest, in that his mastery is also infinite precariousness, sign of absence, where, as enigma, is revealed, inverted, the divine effusion.”[3]

These various examples indicate that the distinction between elite and common is more technical than economic or social.  The nuance is made more obvious by the example of the mystics who disrupt the structures of power-knowledge, and are subversive.  That is the case with Bistâmi, or for the unknown man from Tabriz, whose incursion transformed Rûmî’s life:  the master of science trembled before the master of learned ignorance. 

The people of the spiritual elite are recognizable even in our day.  The traveler can meet them in those Islamic societies that preserve tradition, as in Morocco.  I recognized one of them in Tamesloht, halfway between Marrakech and the Atlas, one evening, in the rags of a mendicant, in that small town marked by sanctity, under the arcades that lead to the kasbah of the Chorfas.  The atmosphere was impregnated by the sharp smell of oil from the olive presses.  It was the harvest season:  the forest of olive trees that surrounds the village was providing a rich crop.  With a fine beard and shoulders high, the beggar who came toward me looked as if he had escaped from Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin”; he was as humble, as robust as one of the characters that surround the dead body of the saint, in that painting I had just seen in the Louvre.  Facing me, he sought out my eyes in the half-light and, as simple as he was solemn, he put together two gestures that summarized his condition, his involvement, his itinerary.  With his left hand, he showed me the earth and the disgust it had inspired in him.  And he raised his right hand with a gesture that gave his approval to the sky; a concentration of energy straightened his body, which seemed suddenly as if ready to ascend.  By this sequence of theatrical mimes, he seemed to mean:  nothingness is here below; up above is existence.  Such is the silent eloquence of the aristocratic beggar marked by nescience, belonging to the elite of the elite that unknowing enlightens, brother and emulator of Bistâm as well as the man from Tabriz, surviving into our century in lands saved from petrodollars and Wahhabism.

It is this distinction between elite and common that collapsed under the pressure of a democratization without a democracy, a populism that generalizes the doctrine without considering its quality and without re-adapting the hierarchical principle so as to establish a new republican or democratic elite.  This, then, was the triumph of the common, which, when it acquires mastery of a technique, proceeds from alphabetization to specialization, without training in the tradition, which in the old days was called the humanities and in our time is considered useless.  In this way of inculcating the mastery of some specialty in an amnesiac or virgin soul, I see additional evidence of the Americanization of the world.  Thus the common man, even if he is a master of a technical specialty, is not transformed into an aristocratic figure, simply because he is the product of an instruction without culture.  It is the uncultivated educated ones who most damage humanity.  Without hesitation, I prefer the highly cultured illiterate, like the Tamesloht beggar, to them.[4]  In the absence democracy, the aristocratic spirit that once deferred the osmosis between the elite and the mass has withdrawn, ceding its place to the man eaten away by resentment, a candidate for terrorist and insurrectional fundamentalism.  That is how a great civilization, which had maintained its bearing during its long decline, lost its last safeguards.  Such are the conditions that made fundamentalist propaganda attractive. 

In fact the candidates rushed to the door of al Qa’ida, which since 1996 had made the Taliban’s Afghanistan its base of operations.  The insurrectional movement founded in 1989 by bin Laden became more radical with the crystallization, in its founder, of an unbridled anti-Western sensibility during the Gulf War (1991), with the arrival on Arab soil of foreign troops.  Without those troops all the regimes of the peninsula would have been swept away, but, in Wahhabite logic, such a presence on the holy ground of Arabia was perceived as a defilement.  They had to fight those who were the cause of it, first the Westerners (especially the Americans), then the Islamic States unfaithful to the Medinese utopia.

Actually, this widespread line of argument does not delve into the areas of the deepest motivation.  Without offering it as an alibi, I will say that it constitutes the rational thinking and conscious analysis of bin Laden.  But the motive that comes from the nagging wound that festers in the humiliation of the Muslim is too poorly understood:  despite Islam’s wealth, despite its numbers (one billion two hundred million people), the Muslim remains excluded from the decisions that satisfy the desire to enforce a world view.  Starting with this sorrow that poisons the outcast’s days, I can grasp the insane motivations of bin Laden and his adepts:  it is the desire for recognition (the denial of which creates the man of resentment) that incites them to act.

I must confess that I cannot grasp the logic that predisposes a person to inscribe humiliation in the innermost core of his being.  If you cannot bear being outcast, if you have trouble living with the lack of recognition, instead of complaining about it, wouldn’t it make more sense to act, to create, to work patiently on your development in order to make yourself indispensable and objectively recognizable? I would like to answer again those who act from humiliation by referring to a lady of the ninth century, the venerable Sufi Umm ‘Alî, a woman of great wealth, who supported her husband Ahmad Ibn Khudhrawayh, one of the spiritual masters of the Khurasân.  She was notably the sublime consort of Abû Yazîd Bistâmi; and Sulami (937-1021) reports this magnificent saying by her: “It is better to lack a thing than to have to suffer humiliation for it.”[5]

This woman’s saying is an excellent precept, and deserves to be meditated upon by those who feel themselves humiliated and rejected.  Maybe they can find another way than that of resentment, which only confirms them in murderous hatred, so that to assuage their vengeful rage, they choose to join the insurrectional movement created by the Wahhabite billionaire who has become a man of shadow and caves.

Let’s consider the word qâ’ida that bin Laden chose to designate his movement and the active or dormant networks that make up its web.  By the density it has, this word acquires the value of a symbol.  It has a polysemy that is at least equal to our word “base,” its equivalent, stemming from the Greek basis (“step, point of support,” and by metonymy “foundation”), whose Latin derivatives extend into many languages, including French and English.  Archaic meanings and the most modern usage intersect in it. 

But let’s first return to the verbal root in which the noun takes its source, as if to honor the etymology in which the Semitic languages excel, where words that share the same root, the same basis the linguist would say, are distributed under one single rubric.  The meanings that radiate from the combination of the three consonants q. ’a. d. are distributed over two ranges.  The first plays on degrees of passivity:  to be seated, to wait for someone, to be seated and ready to serve someone, to prepare, to ready someone for something.  The second leans toward an active intensity:  to be firm, to keep oneself firm, to be in ambush and be on the watch for someone, to be of equal strength, to be able to stand up to someone. 

To illustrate this semantic contrast between waiting and acting, the medieval lexicographer, my compatriot Ibn Manz’ûr (thirteenth century) interprets the Arabic proverb in which the word q. ’a. d. appears in two opposite ways:  Idhâ qâma bika ash-sharru fa-‘uq’ud.[6]  In the first sense, the proverb is translated thus:  “If evil attacks you, wait and don’t get upset.”  In the second, it is altered to the following:  “If evil provokes you, be firm and confront it.”  Thus the imperative of q. ’a. d. (‘uq’ud) provokes two contrary strategies:  faced with evil, the first recommends passive resistance, which is allied with temporizing if not with non-acting; the second exhorts the subject to hurry into warlike heroism. 

The substantive qâ’ida, however, designates what a building rests on, foundation or support, as well as all that serves as a basis, base, pedestal.  The same Ibn Manz’ûr quotes two Koranic verses to support this meaning:  “Abraham, with the help of Ishmael, raised the foundations [qawâ’id, pl. of qâ’ida) of the temple”[7];  and “God attacked their building at its foundation.”[8]  The word also has an abstract meaning that signifies law, a general rule, a fundamental principle; it is used in geometry for the base of the triangle, and in linguistics, used in the plural, it designates grammar (qawâ’id al-lûgha, “the rules of the language”).  In metaphoric usage, it can designate the capital of the kingdom (qâ’idat al-mulk).  And as in a number of European languages, the word, in modern Arabic, is widely associated with military establishments:  base of operations, naval base, air base, missile-launching base, and so forth. 

Two other senses of the word deserve to be emphasized in order to shed light on the choice of the word for an insurrectional, terrorist movement, which tries to create adherence, or at least sympathy, to “a popular base” (qâ’ida sha’biyya), and it uses in its subversive method computer terminology (the height of technology) by using a data base, the “base of givens,” called in Arabic qâ’idat al-bayânât.

We see how revealing this chosen word is.  The technological and “aesthetic” success of the September 11 attacks can be the perfect illustration of it.[9]

[1]  Averroës, Decisive Treatise, 15ff; for “the elite” Averroës uses khawâs (pl. of Khâs) and for “mass” jumhûr, of the quadriliteral verbal form j.m.h.r. which means to unite, to gather the people, the public, etc.  Jumhûr in ancient Arabic can have a pejorative connotation; in its plural form (jamâhîr) it signifies populace, multitude.  In modern Arabic, the neologism that designates the republic derives from the same root (jumhûriya).

[2]  Bistâmi, Les Dits de Bistâmi [The sayings of Bistâmi], trans. by Abdelwahab Meddeb(Paris:  Fayard, 1989) especially sayings 91, 99, 456.

[3]  Christian Jambet, introduction to his translation of Jalâluddin Rûmî, Soleil du réel [Sun of reality], (Paris:  Imprimerie nationale, 1999) 45-46.

[4]  Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres Complètes, (Paris:  Gallimard, 1971), 8: 256-286, noted precisely this distinction between instruction and culture during his travels to Mexico (May-August 1936), and the harm the generalization of the one causes, to the detriment of the other.

[5]  ‘Abd ar-Rahmân Sulami, Dhikr an-Nisâ al-Muta’abbidât as-Sûfiyât (On Sufi women and female devotees), (Cairo, 1993), 77.  Les Dits de Bistâmi,  passage 372.

[6]  Ibn Manz’ûr, Lisân al-’Arab, (Cairo, 1882), 3:361.

[7]  Qur’an, 2:127.

[8]  Qur’an, 16:26.

[9]  It can seem presumptuous “naturally” to equate the September 11 terrorists with al Qa’ida while no proof of their belonging to such an organization has been confirmed.  Doesn’t the act itself reveal its signature? It is perfectly consistent with bin Laden’s discourse and program.  The echo it revives resounds in the very interior of his ideological sphere.  If bin Laden did not organize it, there is no doubt he inspired it.  It is possible that those who acted in New York and Washington belonged only to the diffused mass that extends the base maintained by bin Laden in person; but it is legitimate to guess that both the clearly established structure and the nebula that surround him constitute one single, unique organization whose name is al Qa’ida.  (This note was written before the broadcast of the two videotapes of December 13 and 31, whose contents implicate bin Laden even more.) 

[to be continued]

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (12)

March 4th, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists


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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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (11)

March 3rd, 2015 · Arab Culture, Cultural Studies, Intellectuals, Islam, Islamic Fundamentalists


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(11th installment)


Fundamentalism Against the West


The second effort at re-Islamization is visible through the transformation of the social body in its relation to pleasure and enjoyment.  Islamic society went from a hedonist tradition, based on love of life, to a prudish reality, full of hatred of sensuality.  Prudishness has become a criterion of respectability.  The urban scene teems with Tartuffes and other bigots.  The city arranges its stages to take away the rights of the body, a consequence of the resentment taking root in the souls of the semi-literate, who are legion.  The streets, repellent in their new constructions, negligent, disrespectful of the fabulous architectural past, increase in ugliness when they are traversed by oafish bodies, cut off from care of self; aesthetics withdrew as soon as seduction in the relation of the sexes was abolished.  The maintenance of beauty, as well as its emphasis, are in turn eliminated. 

What an eclipse this is of the religion that has so fascinated foreigners by its cult of the body and the call to pleasure, which are at its foundations! Behind what screens of repression has Islam sheltered itself so as to forget that, according to its medieval wise men, one made love in the name of God, not just to beget but also for pleasure?[1]  What breakdown has paralyzed the entity in which the word that designates religious marriage is the same that designates coitus (nikâh), which authorizes the jurist to decide that it’s enough to invoke the multiple meanings that pervade the word to know that canonically coitus is the reason for marriage? How has the society that had devoted so much to the rights of the body been so vaporized? What mutation has caught hold of belief whose promise is carnal, of faith that venerates desire on the stage of this world as at the heart of the theater promised to the elect in the beyond? What has happened to the community, perceived by medieval Christians (whose credo establishes a nihilism of the body) as an association of debauchees (because of the carnal promise as much as the legal dispositions that make polygamy, cohabitation, and divorce licit)?[2] Why were ears stricken with deafness to stop hearing the language the Thousand and One Nights spread, those tales immersed in the satisfaction of the senses procured by earthly enjoyments — pleasures that were considered divine gifts? Their words traveled, and their European diffusion through Galland’s translation (1702-1714) contributed to liberating the Western body and inventing the fantasy of the harem, which pervaded the century of the Enlightenment:  without speaking of Turkophilia and the fashion for oriental artifice, can one imagine the fable that reveals the truth and secret of sex in Diderot’s Les Bijoux indiscrets [Indiscreet jewels] if Diderot and his public had not been impregnated with the Thousand and One Nights?

What metamorphoses the lands have undergone, lands that so fascinated travelers and writers of the nineteenth century, for the same reasons that had scandalized the European clerics of the Middle Ages! What a blanket of shame has covered the countries that saw Flaubert engulfed in pleasure! To find the scene again, what can one do but recall the ardent hours the Norman writer spent with the almah Kuchuk-Hanem on the shores of the Nile in Upper Egypt?[3]  Or bring to mind Guy de Maupassant, who grew passionate about the Arab manual of medieval erotology and wanted to write a new translation of it? This manual had been composed in the fifteenth century by my compatriot Sheikh Nafzawi, a theologian who exalted the body in the name of God in his Perfumed Garden.[4]  Or we should also quote Nietzsche, opposing the nihilism of the body (which the Christianity in which he had grown up inculcates) with the cult of pleasure and the bodily hygiene of the citizen formed by Islam.  The German philosopher illustrates this difference by an the anecdote that recalls the first thing the Christians did when they took back Cordova: “Here one despises the body, one rejects hygiene as sensuality (the first Christian act after the expulsion of the Moors was to close the public baths, which in the city of Cordova alone numbered two hundred and seventy).”[5]

Now, though, the tradition that reveres the body seems to be disappearing from those Islamic lands ravaged by the moral order that the semi-literate, sick with resentment, impose.  Cairo and Egypt have been transformed from paradise into hell; to be convinced of this, it is enough to see the bodies of livid women, suffering from the heat, burdened by their scarves or their black veils (a contrast that attracts the sun’s heat, in a country where the sun is the tyrant of the day).  Maltreated bodies in a megalopolis where sixteen million people bustle about, breathing the most polluted air, between the gas from old unregistered cars and the clouds of steam spit out by the cement factories, billowing fumes that are joined in season by the bitter, heavy smoke from the rice husks that the peasants of the region burn after gathering the harvest.  Living in Cairo, your lungs become just as fogged as those of an inveterate smoker, though your lips will never have touched a cigarette or the mouthpiece of a hookah.

Add the noise pollution, caused not just by the continuous mass of car horns and the rumbling of motors (of cars as well as air conditioners), but also by the vehement calls to prayer, semi-polemic calls diffused by the ubiquitous and parasitic loudspeakers that would disturb the sleep of the dead.  Unchecked access to technology corrupts one of the beautiful aesthetic contributions of Islam, the one that exalts the voice, one of the vectors by which the word can be celebrated.  Besides the aggressions the body undergoes in this polluted urban atmosphere, we see in these untimely exercises of the voice one of the symptoms that aggravate the sickness of Islam.  What a difference there is between that noise and the unison that the choir of muezzins modulates with their bare voices, sweet tones emanating from chests, from throats, from tongues, from palates, from physically present lips, sent out from the clerestory that crowns minarets! Going from one method to the other, the listener passes from the highest emotion to the most odious of aggressions. 

Such an aesthetic loss stems from the way bodies are mistreated:  they are no longer surrounded by the care the cult of beauty, one of the attributes of ancient Islam, requires.  For the body to blossom, it must move in an architectural space, metaphor for geometric and musical harmony, as much in relation to concord as to dissonance.  It is important, too, that the body come into physical contact with objects that in turn honor the principle of beauty; that is the reason Islamic civilization has been one of the great cultures of the so-called minor arts:  profusion of objects produced through work in wood, leather, stone, ceramics, fabric, cotton, wool, linen, silk, so many beautiful things designed to exalt the body in its movements:  what shipwreck has pushed them out of sight? To the bottom of what sea-depths have they fallen? If I were a cleric and a censor, I would return the message to the sender:  and I would tell these semi-literate people sick with resentment, so ready to accuse and excommunicate, that with this shipwreck of the beautiful they abolish the aesthetic dimension that accompanies the ethics of Islam, and that they dishonor the famous hadîth which affirms that “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” 

Cairo is the largest city of Islam, one of the vastest and most populated on the planet.  It has multiplied all the defects of megalopolises; but it does not possess the highest virtue of them, that of anonymity, which enlarges the adventure of freedom and rescues you from the social control the community exercises over the individual.  In short, Cairo combines the defects of the metropolis and the constraints of the village.  What seems to save it, and make its present and its future impossible to suppress, is the energy that pervades it:  everywhere it is overflowing with those who circulate in it.  It is also the splendor of its site, between the Moqattam, the Nile, and the desert; and it is its venerable age, the centuries that have succeeded each other in it, and that have all bequeathed wonders for eternity:  certainly for eternity, for the monuments remain standing despite the negligence and indifference of the humans who are their unworthy inheritors.  Finally, it is the epiphanic potential Cairo holds, bringing the material of poetry to the visitor who finds himself immersed in it. [6]

Today, we are witnessing a curious inversion in the politics and economics of the body.  Islam proposes a prudish city, whose inhabitants are sick with nihilism and resentment.  While the Western body has freed itself from inherited constraints.  This is an extravagant inversion of which Islamic devotees are not aware, since they are proud enough of their state to propose their virtuous society as a counter-example to the Western society that is supposed to be one of vice.  Don’t they oppose their modest society to the foreign society that is that of immodesty? Don’t they sing the praises of discretion and dissimulation, and belittle the exhibitionism of the West? Don’t they celebrate the veiled, or reclusive, feminine body by lambasting Western nudity and promiscuity? They never realize that they are being proud of the very signs of their illness.  And they are not embarrassed at cultivating their difference by insisting on what distinguishes their virtuous and pious society from that of the foreigner, marked by debauchery and atheism.  In this East-West contrast, in the respective judgments that Islam and Europe make about each other, we are witnessing the inversion of the medieval stereotype.  Never has misunderstanding remained so tenacious.  Between amnesia (which obliterates the memory of tradition) and oversimplification (which believes that the moral person disintegrates in the freedom of the individual), humans formed by contemporary Islam are at best naïve, and let themselves be pervaded by the tricks of the unthinking, at worst hypocritical, arranging the scene of their transgressive desire in hidden alcoves, or in so-called shameful countries, far from the gaze of their own people.

[1].  Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, La Sexualité en Islam, 6th edition (Paris:  PUF, 2001).

[2]  Norman Daniel, Islam and the West, (Oxford:  Oneworld Publications, 1993-156.) 131.

[3]  Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, I, letter to Louis Bouilhet (March 13, 1850) (Paris:  La Pléaide, Gallimard, 1973) 605-607.

[4]  Sheikh Nefzawi, Le Jardin parfumé, translated by Baron R. (Paris:  Philippe Picquier, 1999).

[5]  Nietzsche, The Antichrist.  (Pauvert, Paris, 1967) 103.

[6] I use the word “epiphany” in the sense that the Irish novelist James Joyce gives it, a meaning that revives in me the echo of the Sufi notion of tajalli, which describes the process of revealing the invisible in concrete things; it is a question of visions and revelations that transform the urban hours of the walker and establish poetry in the city.


The objective of all forms of Wahhabism is to make one forget body, object, space, beauty. These obscurations mean to impose a generalized amnesia, one of the symptoms of the sickness that has afflicted the disciple of Islam.  It can be observed in many different areas and acts in various strata of society.  Christian Jambet, one of the rare thinkers who have mastered both Western and Islamic philosophical traditions, in both its Arabic and Persian versions (he is a specialist in the Neo-Platonists of Persia), teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Paris.  Many of his students come from French-speaking lands like Morocco or Lebanon.  When Jambet presents his students with thoughts from the Islamic Middle Ages, and especially when he evokes the hermeneutic tradition, very often his Muslim students, future administrators of “corporate capitalism,” protest and interrupt him, asserting that such doctrines cannot belong to Islam.  By acting in this way, they reveal Wahhabite influence:  forgetful of their own culture, they think they are the real guardians of the true Islam.  These future executives of international finance are marked as well by that simplistic Islam, cut off from its civilization.  And the diffusion of such an elementary Islam comes from Saudi Arabia and from its petro-dollars, and it prospers on the accumulation of failures whose detrimental effects I have outlined.

These failures reinforce the idea that it is possible to achieve modernity by following one’s own course and adapting the technical advances of the age to one’s own principles.  Simplified to the extreme, these principles seem adaptable to the space of modernity.  Wahhabite oversimplification and the aptitude for Americanization once again find themselves clearly united:  the individual does not blink at the contradiction between belonging to a traditional society and the use of the material goods of modernity.  No place is made in this scheme for critical thought, so the work of contradiction cannot produce the rupture necessary to insure the passage from a traditional structure to the adventure that modernity opens up.

These tendencies toward Americanization were united in Afghanistan, where the second conjunction between Wahhabism and militant fundamentalism occurred, still under the aegis of the United States, which did not seem shocked by the ideological content of the Islamist mobilization against the Soviet invasion.  Their objective was to neutralize the USSR.  To fight while reviving archaic religious sentiments that invoked Holy War did not seem to the Americans to embody a fatal potential for which they could be the future target.  Military operations were conducted involving trusted allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  The archaic soul combined with wealth to insure technical initiation into the most sophisticated weapons for the fundamentalists.  In this spirit, an international community of warriors of Islamic origin was created, formed under the control of the CIA with Saudi money.  And in this context appeared Osama bin Laden, who took part in these battles weapons in hand, before placing his personal fortune at the service of the cause and recruiting for the jihad everywhere in the lands of Islam, especially in the Arab countries.  Many of the semi-literate, the potentially unemployed, and other militants, perhaps less frustrated but still children of resentment, possessed by revolutionary aims, responded to his summons.  A dozen years of training and military exercise on the field of battle (1980-1990) were enough to form the international brigades of fundamentalism.  Victory over the Soviets embedded in the fundamentalist milieu the idea that, through weapons and through the use of terror, it was possible to reach one’s goals.

After the war in Afghanistan, thousands of militants, marked by this ideology of battle, were suddenly available.  Some returned to their country of origin, armed, experienced, to fan the flames, stir unrest, revive dissidence.  Algeria’s misfortune was intensified by the influx of “Afghans,” those Algerians who had gone from the maquis of the Hindu Kush or the Pamirs to the maquis of the Aurès.  When they disembarked in Algiers, their compatriots were surprised and impressed by their appearance, wearing an outfit that didn’t belong to local traditions:  ample robes, turbans from elsewhere, full, uncut beards contrary to local custom.  They had returned to their homeland with a new “habitus,” symbolizing an unknown violence, in a country that had not been unaware of the experience of violence and that was not peopled with angelic choirboys.  Representing violence in violence, these “Afghans,” in the euphoria of the victory over the Soviets, decided to create the sinister GIA [Groupe Islamique Armé], in Peshawar in 1990, to transport their “skills” into their own country.  They were the first to be convinced that military violence was the only answer to the interruption of the electoral process of 1992.  When in 1993 the conflict between the leaders at the core of the GIA was exacerbated (between the “locals” and the “Afghans”), Osama bin Laden (who supported the movement and financed its support groups in Europe) decided in favor of the Afghans.[1] 

The dispersal of “Afghan” Arabs brought them to Egypt, the Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan.  They were also attracted by the European wars that involved Islamic communities — Bosnia, then Chechnya.  These wars came to an end or ran out of steam.  The states targeted by political terror resisted.  Some of these fundamentalists found themselves once more free, or harassed.  After the asylum granted by a hospitable Sudan, they proceeded to a second fallback position in Afghanistan and its Pakistani borderland (around Peshawar).  At that time, in May 1996, Osama bin Laden came to settle down in the region, having become persona non grata in the Sudan (he had been living in Khartoum since May 1992). He found shelter with the Taliban, pure products of the local (Mawdûdi) fundamentalist tradition reinforced by Wahhabism (the propagation of which is officially financed by Saudi Arabia through a network of religious schools that stretches its tentacles everywhere it can reach).  The Taliban movement represented the extreme point of irredentism in the linking of a basic Wahhabism with the radicalism brought by the Egyptian tradition of fundamentalism within the totalitarian system developed by Mawdûdi.  This tradition will be physically present on Afghan soil in the person of Ayman al-Zawahri.  Mullah Omar is nothing but the spiritual son of these “hybrids.” 

[1]  Mohammed Mukadam, “Rihlat al-Afghân al-Jazâ’iriyyîn mina ‘l-Qâ’ida ilâ ‘l-Jamâ’a” (Journey of Algerian Afghans from al Qaeda to the GIA), Al-Hayat, (London-based Arab daily) November 23-30, 2001.  This investigation should be read with prudence, for it seems inspired by the Algerian Secret Services, which opened their archives to the journalist.

[to be continued]

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Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (10)

March 2nd, 2015 · Uncategorized


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(10th installment)


Fundamentalism Against the West


We’ll begin with the first conjunction and its effects on Egypt.  In the beginning of the 1970s, to fight against the Left, Sadat supported the return to legality of the fundamentalists whose political, if not physical, presence Nasser had abolished.  The legalization of fundamentalists, given their numbers, creates an explosive situation.  At the same time, the democratization of learning corresponds to the soaring demography; the number of university diplomas increases at the cost of third-rate education.  The masses of the semi-literate inflate in their turn.  Poor wages force the pseudo-academics to emigrate to Arabia.  In this political and social context, Egypt is subject to an active re-Islamization that accompanies the strategy of infitah, advocating opening up to the West — the best way of liquidating the state economy, inherited from Nasserism.

Integration into the market economy is strengthened by an alliance with the United States.  A regional coherence is established, with the convergence of Egyptian and Arabic perspectives.  For Egypt will come close to the Wahhabite example, at the risk of deviating from its Western tradition, still evident in literary experience.  Literature will find itself relegated to the margins:  the reading public is reduced as the television audience widens.  That is the effect of the Americanization of the world.  The triumph of the window of light, the new box of wonders, will bring cinematographic and literary creation, which was the vector of Europeanization, towards the periphery.  One had to adapt or die.  Resistance, especially of a literary kind, could create the conditions of a survival at the margins, where there was no lack of experimentation.  But the great majority remained riveted to televised images, as elsewhere in the world.  In the lands of Islam, though, because of the contrast a heterogeneous way of life makes when compared with the kind that television shows, change seems more obvious; it can be seen on the surface of things.  There is no need to dig deep or even to scrape the surface to unearth its evidence.

I will not linger over the emergence and entry into society of the fundamentalist phenomenon; it is described in its time by Gilles Kepel.[1]  I will not recall the inflammatory sermons of hysterical imams, who exulted in adorning their verbal anti-Westernism with flowers of rhetoric that belong to the resources of the language they use.  Such an anti-Westernism resounds in the walls of the city with a thousand mosques at the very time when the politicians place their hopes in a Western alliance, which will make Egypt (especially its army) an example of this new form of protectorate of which America is fond.  The re-Islamization of society and the American alliance will go hand in hand and will constitute another paradox, which I will call the Egyptian paradox.  As the society becomes Americanized (through incitement to material consumption and through the media), the quest for the specific gains in intensity.

This phenomenon will have as its emblem the sequence animated by the deception of the Islamic banks, adapting financial investment to the divine law which forbids the earning of interest, which is considered usury.  I will not insist on the bankruptcies that interrupted the activities of these banks; nor will I evoke the technical details that disguise bank interest as licit earnings.  The aim of such institutions was to answer to an ideological demand:  they were supposed to make the Islamic quality of participation in the market visible.  Such subterfuges prove illusory when any reasonable person knows that the immense Wahhabite fortunes flourished in the spheres of high finance and according to the rules of the Stock Exchange, which is not moved by any inclination to bend to the prescriptions of Islam.  The Islamic banks’ vocation was to symbolize the articulation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, between Nile fundamentalism (heritage of the movement born in the 1920s, as I recalled earlier) and Arabic Wahhabism.  This was a way to give a color of Islam to the money earned by the Egyptian expatriates in Arabia. 

Should we connect the fundamentalist word with its deed, with the appearance of terrorism at the beginning of the 1980’s, of which one spectacular victim was Anwar al-Sadat, who was at the origin of the return to this political radicalism in Cairo? Recall that behind this political assassination[2] stands the specter of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri, whom the reader will find later as the right hand man of Osama bin Laden during the second conjunction between fundamentalism and Wahhabism, the one that inducted the Afghan scene, as prelude to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Should we also bring to mind the merciless war that the Egyptian government directed against fundamentalist terrorism, guilty of a long list of executed or excommunicated victims, featuring politicians and people belonging to the intellectual milieu or civil society, punished for having remained faithful to what’s left of the values spread by Western modernity? In this war, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, almost joined his predecessor in death during the assassination attempt made on him in Addis-Ababa in July 1995.

But I would above all like to stress the consequences of such a political process devoted to violence.  Through its imprint, a society has changed its face.  Even if, politically, the fundamentalists have not won, their ideology has marked the whole of the social body.  Some of their precepts have been adopted by official Islam; in the war of words, the State thought it had to take away from the fundamentalists the argument denouncing the non-conformity of their society to Islamic norms.  To defuse this criticism, the State decided to entrust to al-Azhar the governance of souls, provided it would minimize the reach of political Islam.  After such a tacit agreement, society found itself metamorphosed.  The signs of European modernity were obliterated, while Islamic signs (adapted to an Americanized urban landscape) were restored. The most obvious of these signs, and the most polemic, is the wearing of veils by women.  With a few rare exceptions, even the most Westernized women conformed to this return to Islamic norm; the elegant ones created headgear to fit the circumstance, which fit tightly around their hair and kept it hidden.  The memory of the feminist Hoda Sha’râwi is as effaced as the beautiful Neo-Mameluke house where she used to live.  The house is destroyed; the land where it set now serves as a garage for the tourist buses visiting the pharaonic museum. 

At best, we are witnessing the unfurling of a devout society, the realization on earth of a human ensemble obeying what the Savoyard St. François de Sales had thought and imagined (in a different age!) when he recommended

accommodating the practice of devotion to the strength, business, and duties of each particular (…).  “The bee,” Aristotle said, “draws its honey from flowers without disturbing them,” leaving them whole and fresh as it found them; but true devotion does even better, for, not only does it not spoil any kind of vocation or business, but on the contrary it adorns and embellishes them.[3]

In such a way, through your devotion, you can contribute to founding a society subject to Islamic virtue while still keeping your profession, your economic activities; nor does devout practice prevent you from satisfying the desire to consume, or to succeed in the affairs of business the market offers.

The reeducation of such a society occured through the intervention of televised sermons and instruction, which have had their stars, among whom Sheikh Sha’râwi stands out. The sheikh had a large audience, and even an influence over the modern, enlightened minds that thought they were discovering the subtleties of traditional theology through the obscurantist theology this sheikh spreads, one more avatar in whom the semi-literate, emboldened by their very resentment, can feel triumph. 

Confusion is at its height, the loss of reference-points impairs judgment; and the public takes the theatrics as vitality. It responded to the literalist analogies the sheikh propagated. With drops of spit accompanying his emphatic gestures, this pedagogue of the poor submitted his role to a well-received theatricality despite (or because of) his elementary expressiveness. 

Using the new form of literalism he glorified, he located Qur’anic references to technological innovations, from electricity to the atom.  It was as if the masses of Islam could find an additional reason in this subterfuge to authenticate their book (which is supposed to enclose the very word of God), and credit it with an omniscience anticipating the inventions that changed the way humans live on the earth.  As if from such a sense they distilled an appeasement that could console them for having excluded inventions produced by those evil, strange Westerners.  As if such a divine premonition expressed in their language made them free of guilt, as if it placed their resentment in reserve to help them enjoy the material goods of post-industrial society while keeping the illusion of having been their heralds if not their actual inventors. 

This is the kind of magic thread on which depends adherence to such a religion (whose rational dimension, which frees it from myth and legend to found it in history, its incense-bearing admirers praise).  This claim — shared, moreover, by the proud epigones of three monotheisms — is pushed to the height of its exuberance in fundamentalists like Sayyid Qutb.[4]  But none of them knows that with such ideas thrown together in haste, they themselves are fabricators of myths. 

[1]  Gilles Kepel, Le Prophète et Pharaon [The prophet and pharaoh], Paris:  La Découverte, 1986.

[2]  Note that the fundamentalists, as children of Americanization, already cared about the televisual appearance of their horrendous crimes; they were already marked by the narcissism of the media, beyond the impact on the public that the image procures for them to propagate their ideology and intimidate the world through terror.

[3]  Saint François de Sales, Introduction à la vie dévote [Introduction to the devout life] Paris: Le Seuil, 1961,22-3.

[4]  In the same book we cited earlier, Sayyid Qutb shows how this passage from myth to a reality based on reason remained insufficient with the Jews as well as with the Christians, whose Scriptures are still full of legends (asât’îr) and are scarcely free of the prevailing paganism (wathaniyya). Though he cites Biblical legends, he remains blind to the Koranic recollections of these same legends, as well as to those that are unique to the Book of the Muslims, or that this Book reaps from post-Biblical literatures.


Among the preachers, and even among the “secular” editorialists, an extreme xenophobia illumines the disasters undergone by their community. Thus they invent an imaginary conspiracy attributed to the Other, in the role of the enemy.  The faults of the group and the deviances of individuals are attributable to the evildoing and malevolent foreigner.  Is there a better way of removing responsibility from the individual after having discharged him of guilt? The misfortune that plagues the Muslim has the West as its origin…  and Israel, whose success is irritating:  The counterpoint is in fact his own failure, which he cannot acknowledge.  That is how traditional anti-Semitism is changed into modern anti-Semitism.  A world separates the two ways of expressing hostility against the Jews.  Traditional anti-Semitism involved the theological controversy in which the Jews themselves participated, as was the case of Yehuda Halevi, who, in Arabic, sang the praises of “the despised religion” [translator’s note: Judaism] after having refuted the two rival monotheisms.[1]  Such a feeling of hostility inscribed itself into a competition for legitimacy.  The goal was to establish the authenticity of one’s own theological ground, all the more necessary since it had to distance itself from the potential influence the earlier exercises over the later, from the very moment you decide to found your own building on the site and with the materials of those who preceded you. 

Current anti-Semitism stems from unthinking Westernization; its engagement is fed by the use and adaptation of falsehoods made up by the anti-Semites of the West.  This is the case of the translation and distribution of The Protocol of the Elders of Zion.  Or the use of the anti-Semitic document created in the 1920’s by the American extreme right and attributed to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), editor of the Constitution. The document that makes him express the suspicion the migration of the Jews should arouse, for if they were to multiply on American soil, they would usurp the State and manipulate it to make it defend their own cause.  This text is considered a blessing by those who, in their anti-Zionist war, don’t care about protecting themselves from the drift toward anti-Semitism. Relying without precaution on such falsehoods, they attribute the American alliance with Israel to Jewish infiltration of the most powerful State in the world.  They fail to see how basic the legitimacy of Israel is in the vision of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, marked by its Messianic reading of the Old Testament.  They do not know that the Zionist idea emerged in the beginning of the nineteenth century in Puritan writings, from believers who found it unbearable that the Holy Land was not in the hands of its legitimate owners.  The idea of Zionism was born in a Protestant land before being formulated in a much more ample way as a Jewish aspiration.[2]  Let us add to this historic truth the inscription of the Holocaust into the symbolism of the State and in the civic education of the United States, a holocaust of whose accelerating role in the process that led to the foundation of the Hebrew State everyone is well known.[3]

It is important to remember this reality in an effective approach to the Palestinian question.  We must avoid the mistake of the great imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Tantâwi, who imprudently used the falsehood attributed to Benjamin Franklin and made it the epigraph of the thesis he devoted to what should be a theological subject par excellence, The Children of israel in Koran and Sunna.[4]  This epigraph became the symptom that revealed that a traditional theological treatise had been transformed into an ideological tract, shot through with tendencies evoked by current events.  The Jews of Medina (contemporaries of the Prophet Mohammed) are judged in the same way as the Jews of Israel at war with the Palestinians and the Arabs.  Anti-Judaism is mixed with anti-Zionism and is changed into an anti-Semitism that is not even aware of being made from a Western import.  In the generalized confusion, a theological controversy is assimilated with a political question that in its turn is mixed with a racist perversion.  The wound Israel inflicts on Arab consciences remains exposed to all purulence. 

No one is spared, not even the least obtuse and least fanatical minds, such as Sheikh Tantâwi, one of the reasonable voices of authority of official Islam, representative of a semimagisterium to limit the damage that uncontrolled access to the word causes.  He denounced the deception of Osama bin Laden and denied him any legitimacy in attributing to himself the position of imam; he reminded the Saudi millionaire that he had neither the moral authority nor the doctrinal competence to call for holy war, which had to obey particular conditions to be proclaimed canonically unimpeachable — at a time when that notion was valid.  After saying all that, I am under the obligation to reveal that even the antidote to fundamentalist poison is not safe from the sickness of Islam, one of whose symptoms is xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Thus we propose to ourselves the theoretical and abstract foreigner as a scapegoat we overload with falsehoods.  Almost unanimously, Egyptian opinion was that the Luxor attack (November 1997) was the result of a conspiracy hatched by the CIA and its Mossad hirelings.  In vain I explained to my interlocutors that beyond the obvious fundamentalist implication, such a massacre of innocent tourists can be perceived as the implementation of the discourse spread in the name of official Islam by the organs controlled by the State.[5]  The problem stems from the Azharian brand of Islam that the State put in charge of souls.  To defuse adherence to fundamentalism, this Islam felt it was in a favorable situation to take over the discourse of Islamists without shouldering its ultimate consequences, those that preach violence and insurrection. 

Can one lead a society with such a discourse toward piety and devotion without inciting it to found the Islamic State that would accord with its moral condition and would assure it, if not permanence, at least endurance and coherence? Are we in a situation in which we are still living the separation between religion and politics? That is certainly the case today in Egypt, but the distance between the values emanating from the two modes of thought is such that it risks producing schizophrenic citizens, susceptible to mending their interior division by soldering it into that unity the fundamentalism of secrecy and violent action promises.  This situation has engendered one of the leaders who directed the September 11 attacks, the one the press has talked about most of all:  Mohammed ‘Atta did not fall from the sky, he is the product of Egyptian reality, which produces many other similar figures.

In the commentaries revived by the latest attacks on New York, we again find at work the same way of disengaging responsibility. The attacks were attributed once again to the Mossad, on the pretext that the instant the planes hit their target, four thousand Jews were not at their posts in the Twin Towers.  Supported by large segments of public opinion from the fringes of the intellectual milieu, the press for a long time gave the spotlight to Mohammed ‘Atta’s father, who did his utmost to explain that his son had been abducted by the Mossad so that his name would be sullied and used in an operation led by the Secret Services of Israel in order to harm Egypt and Islam.  It’s not hard for a father in distress to clear himself of having engendered a criminal and a monster! We should point out too that such attitudes are not unique to Egypt.  While visiting Damascus during the last ten days of September 2001, I discovered that the attribution to the Mossad of the destruction of the Manhattan towers was circulated by the official Syrian press. 

Anti-Western xenophobia combined with anti-Semitism needs rumors to keep going strong.  When I was at Abu Dhabi in May 2001, a number of my interlocutors, of various Arab nationalities (Lebanese, Syrian, Sudanese, etc.) confirmed the warning, spread by the local newspapers, to the public of the countries of the Near East not to buy the very inexpensive belts with the label Made in Thailand. Thes ebelts, the people told me, were actually Israeli products in disguise, and carried a kind of flea that propagated an incurable disease:  one more Zionist trick to weaken Arab bodies, if not eliminate them.  These interlocutors, otherwise reasonable and likeable, gave credit to information as fantastic as that.  Those are the fantasies in which the symptoms of the sickness of Islam can be seen, the receptive compost where the crime of September 11 could be welcomed joyfully.  Didn’t the press report that, in a Cairo bus, when the radio revealed the first estimates of the number of victims pulverized in New York, the passengers had spontaneously applauded and congratulated each other as if they had just received the happiest news? If such a crime brought such joy to these people, how could it be attributed to the Mossad? It is true that opinions afflicted with blindness are not accountable for their contradictions. 

[1]  Yehuda Halevi, Le Kuzari, Apologie de la religion méprisée [The Kuzari:  In defense of the despised faith], translated [into French] from the Arabic by Charles Touati, Louvain-Paris:  Peeters, 1994.

[2]  See Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, Volume I, L’Invention de la Terre sainte [The invention of the Holy Land], Paris: Fayard, 1999, 18.  In his demonstration Laurens depends on Mayir Vreté’s study, “The Restoration of the Jews in English Protestant Thought, 1790-1840,” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. VIII, 1972, pp. 3-50.  See also George Robinson, “Jérusalem, 21 août 1830,” pp. 196-200, in Dédale/Multiple Jérusalem, 3 & 4, Paris:  Maisonneuve & Larose, Spring 1996.

[3]  The State of Israel was founded three years after the revelation to the world of the disaster caused by the “final solution.”

[4] Sheikh Ahmad Tantâwi, Beni Isrâ’îl fi-l’Qur’ân wa’s-Sunna, Cairo, 1987, p.9.

[5]  Abdelwahab Meddeb, “Comme un ange déchu au Caire” [Like an angel fallen in Cairo], pp. 402-426, in Dédale/La Venue de l’étranger, Nos. 9 & 10, Paris:  Maisonneuve & Larose, Fall 1999.

[to be continued]

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Birds of Metal in Flight: an Evening of Poetry with 5+5

March 1st, 2015 · Poetry readings

Sinovision TV ran a story on the reading of the Chinese & American poets on Weds. at St. John’s Cathedral in NY in honor of Xu Bing’s Phoenix.

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Celan, Peyrafitte, Howe, Meyer.

February 28th, 2015 · Book Reviews, Performance, Poetics, Poetry

With the serialization of The Malady of Islam taking up all weekdays (& will do for another couple of weeks), I’ll use Saturday’s post to list other items/events of interest.

1) A Review of Breathturn into Timestead in The Arts Fuse:

Fuse Poetry Review: “Breathturn into Timestead” — A Magnificent Guide to the Enigmatic Poetry of Paul Celan

Feb 25 2015

 Once you have wrestled with Paul Celan, not against but along-side him in his poetry, you may find yourself with a changed and sharpened sensibility to image and language.

By Kai Maristed

A few days ago I was shopping in a big department store in Munich. At the cash register I set down the thick book of poetry (over 700 pages with annotations, thank you) that I’d been lugging around all morning. Quietly, almost under her breath, the clerk said, “Ach! Paul Celan.”

I looked at her. Mid-forties, buttoned-up cardigan, short curly hair. Clear pale eyes. “You know Celan?”

With a small smile, she recited from memory:  Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken sie abends / wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts… (‘Black milk of daybreak, we drink it in the evening / we drink it at noon and in the morning we drink it at night…) These are the first lines of Celan’s extraordinary poem, Todesfuge. (Death Fugue) Worked on for at least a year, published in his early collection Poppy and Memory, this ferocious, beautiful lyric challenged the famous statement by philosopher Theodor Adorno, that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

[ctd here]

2) Nicole Peyrafitte’s performance at The Poetry Project on Wednesday 25 February.

To see how the image below was created, check out the documentation & video on the blog, here.


3) A few books it has been my pleasure to spend some time with this past week:

Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars / The Telepathy of Archives. (Christine Burgin/New Directions 2014). Sumptuous stroll through the natural landscape of a library cormorant. If you are unconvinced that poems descend from other poems, that texts generate texts, that archives don’t entomb the dead but enliven the live, then spend some time with this book.


Thomas Meyer, Essay Stanzas (The Song Cave, 2014) Meyer — maybe my generation’s least well-known master-poet of the lyric imagination — gathers 4 sequences in this book which, as Peter O’Leary suggests, “compress Orphic oracle, Faustian apocalypse, oneiric pageant, invented fable, wisdom literature, cryptic joke, disturbing aphorism, epigrammatic wit and nervous ruin.” Here two (near random fragments) from the sequence “Kept Apart:”

a poet said
pointing to a dark spot
on the moon
that’s blck money
carried there by
dead traders
who fled earth
but in fact
those thieves
and smugglers
left their loot here on earth
and paid interets on that sum
with their deserted bodies
that poor innocent moon
must put up with these stories
that cause him such deep grief

cut and broken
shaped and chipped
stone becomes statue
yet we hear about
how every road
is lined with

Everybody remembers money
even at the point of death
even so tirelessly charity
works away
the last

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