Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (14)


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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1 Response

  1. Poo says:

    Abdelwahab Meddeb brilliantly explains the “splendor to wretchedness” fall of the once great Islamic world.

    “In the absence of 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.”

    Of course this completely negates the possibility of free will or that inner urge, that indomitable spirit that drives many to succeed in spite of any and all obstacles.

    “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.”

    So there it is. The little terrorist and his acolytes are suffering from a perverse sense of hurt feelings because they cannot conquer the world or at the very least, direct it. Oh gee. Instead, these nobodies kill, torture and kidnap all in aid of recognition. We would do well, after destroying them, to eliminate their names in all reportage other than as numbers under the general heading of ‘dead terrorists’.

    Abdelwahab Meddeb asks the right question: “…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?” Indeed, wouldn’t it?

    It is quaint how Abdelwahab Meddeb evokes the “Assassins” when sourcing links to the sadistic terrorism we now see representing Islam to the world. One need not, except for scholarship, go so far back. It makes for interesting reading but surely the Kamikaze pilots and the Nazis make much better and more current comparisons. He rather glosses over them but they are worth more, in the research sense only.

    The Wahhabites may very well be “repellent in their intellectual poverty and their fanaticism” but they have a sizeable following, are well financed directly by the house of Saud and have the minds of the wackiest killers firmly in their grasp.

    It is highly unlikely the average Muslim has the academic breadth of knowledge of our esteemed author so it is also unlikely that he would see all the connections to a better, more glorious time as illustrated in this fine book. (I suspect it was a difficult translation.) He is more likely to be influenced by the preaching in his individual mosque and the opinions of his imam, friends and associates. This is unlike Christians and Jews, who regard their “books” as ancient works from a time, place and circumstance vastly different from their own. Those “books” are for guidance; they do not offer either dictates or laws. Well, they do but you don’t lose your head for disobedience. It is also permissible to discuss this, something not allowed in Islam hence the unwillingness and or inability to do so. The exception, of course, is reserved for the terrorist jihadists who find any meaning they need in order to justify the most heinous of acts.

    Abdelwahab Meddeb makes that point clearly when he notes that, “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.”

    So true. Yet the jihadist terrorist of today not only lives it, he believes it. And that is madder still.

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