Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (13)


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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