The Malady of Islam
by Abdelwahab Meddeb
translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell
P a r t I V
The Western Exclusion of Islam
That is the sickness of Islam. It has existed throughout history. It exists now. It is identifiable through the actions and words of the fundamentalists. But I do not confuse Islam with its sickness, even if I can see the undeniable component of it that predisposes it to that sickness. He who diagnoses the sickness prescribes the remedy. If this is not a case of “the remedy is in the sickness,” what treatment can be prescribed for Islam? I see a double treatment: it concerns by turns external rationale and internal rationale.
The external rationale involves the integration of Islam into the common scene; and that has to begin by lifting its exclusion. To do this, I recommend doing away with the myth of Ismael, which has even been reactivated, taken up, and developed by Islamophiles like Louis Massignon, who borrows the Sufi notion of badaliyya to elaborate his theory of compassion-substitution: so that the Christian, like Massignon himself, substitutes himself for the Muslim and lives in his place the non-fulfillment of his belief as a banished person. Massignon’s compassion for the faithful of excluded Islam, exiled and orphaned, descendants of Ismael, even extended to political involvement; thus he brought his active support to the Algerians and the other colonized peoples struggling for the liberation of their country in the distress of non-recognition.
This idea of banishment loses its pertinence when we reflect on the time when Islam experienced its hegemonic era. Entering into sovereignty and its brilliant exercise makes the notion of exclusion invalid, even if this situation engendered the chagrin of a Yehuda Halevi, who remained inconsolable before the triumph of the son of an amorous liaison with a servant who had now become the master subjugating Sara’s child. I will give a selection of verses taken from various poems in the Diwân of the Jewish poet formed in the framework of the Arabic culture of Spain:
The son of the slave clothes me in terror
and flings his arrow with his hand high […]
The kingdom of Hagar rises up and mine is lowered.
Seïr works wonders and the son of my maidservant triumphs […]
Perhaps he has made you see your enemy
Weakened, brought low — and you, your head high,
Saying to Hagar’s son: withdraw your proud hand
From the son of your mistress whom you have vexed? […]
Revenge my injury so I may no longer be forced
to call my slave, “my master” […]
My Beloved, You have abandoned me,
caught in the trap of my desolation
You have set free that wild son of a slave […]
My enemies rejoice, and you have let them ride on my mount.
The sovereignty reserved for the descendants of these servants seems to have engendered a cry of poetic revolt in this man who called for the confirmation of his people’s chosen status by material signs like the return to Zion, so that they would end their captivity in the prison of the Ishmaelites, the agarim [children of Hagar], the two names by which the Jews designated the Muslims, referring to the banished one whose descendants knew an imperial destiny, transforming their orphan origin.
This myth of banishment seems confirmed by Western non-recognition, not only of the historic contribution of Islam, but especially of the pertinence of the topoi it offers. I even see a sort of therapeutic necessity for Westerners to work on themselves to get rid of the conscious or unconscious Islamophobia inherited since undergoing the influence of the caricatured, polemical, denigrating and malicious image constructed by the Middle Ages and admirably elucidated by Norman Daniel. For Daniel, the medieval survivals of these visions have never ceased, not in the Islam seen by the Age of Enlightenment, or even in the Islam perceived through the criteria of the “scientific” age: none of these methodologies have escaped the prejudices they inherited. Norman Daniel concludes with the thought that
it is essential that Christians perceive Mohammed as a sacred figure, that is to say, that they see him as the Muslims see him. If they do so, they will share through empathy the prayers and devotions of others. They should “agree to suspend their skepticism,” according to Coleridge’s phrase (a willing suspension of disbelief).
This recommendation goes beyond the position of Massignon, and is like the one for instance that the Dominican monks adopt when visiting or staying at the Institute for Arab Studies, which they own, in Cairo. Emilio Platti explains, legitimizes, and puts into practice such a position in an essay in which he approaches Islam as an authentic belief and in which he dialogues with the religion of the other, without trying either to evade or deform or reduce or neutralize the other’s difference; and when he recalls the tendencies and dangers that threaten the Islam of today, one almost has the feeling that his critique comes from within, so well has he been able to keep the other company in his truth.
To this gradual progression towards the recognition of Islam among believers, I will add the importance of such a recognition in the secular fields of art, poetry, philosophy. The poetics of the in-between, of the interstitial, of crossing over, which is natural for me, should be extended to the field of Islamic culture and should be the poetics of everyone. This integration of the Islamic legacy into the sources of thought and creation (just as much as Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian sources) should be an additional warranty of the constitution of a community that would be world culture, whose products would be creative works, situated beyond traditions but without interrupting dialogue with them; each person should choose the ancients who suit him so that in the adventure of the new the living can catch hold of the dead.
Goethe was persuaded already in his day that a universal literature (Weltliteratur) was in the process of being born, and that its coming should be hastened. To this end, he thought of the relationship between the specific and the universal: it is within each particularity that the universal will shine, and be reflected through the national and individual mirror. Each person should appropriate the poetic works that realize such an aim, whatever their language or nation might be. One must learn to know the particularities of each language, and of each nation, for it is through them that the exchange works and is realized in all its amplitude. Thus we will reach reciprocal mediation and recognition. Hence the role of translation in this poetics of interval and crossing. Translation is what will serve as an intermediary between the languages. On this question, Goethe was prophetic, for in our day, in the world tribe of poetic creation, often the poet attributes his talent and his mastery to the act of translating.
Every translator should be seen in the same way: he tries to be the mediator of this spiritually universal activity and undertakes to promote reciprocal exchange. For whatever one may say about the insufficiency of translations, translation is and will remain one of the worthiest and most important activities in universal world exchange.
The Koran says: “God gave each people a prophet speaking in its own language.” Thus each translator is a prophet among his people.
The same Goethe wrote his West-Östlicher Diwan (1814-1818) in the perspective of this Weltliteratur that would thereafter have its source outside Europe, in emulation of the pre-Islamic Arabian poets whom he began to know in 1783 through their English translation by W. Jones. The German poet appreciated Persian lyricism, to which he was initiated by Herder in 1792, before coming to study Hafîz (circa 1325-c. 1390), even identifying with him after becoming enthusiastic over reading the full translation of his Divan by Hammer (1812-1813). Goethe lived his hegira toward the East, his expatriation toward the poetry of Islam and the ambivalence it maintains by singing of divine love with the techniques of carnal love, by singing the praises of spiritual drunkenness by means of profane bacchic poetry.
I want, in the baths and taverns,
O Saint Hafiz, to think of you;
When the beloved raises her veil
And from her ambered hair
Sweet perfumes emanate.
Yes, may the poet’s murmur of love
Arouse desire even among the houris.
In this migration to the East, the sixty-year-old poet will be transformed into a new youth, finding in the company of Islam a confirmation of his sensuality and of the Spinozism of his youth.. One can hear surprising Islamic echoes through his deism, and the pulverization of the divine in the world, in that immanence of the transcendent theorized by Ibn ‘Arabi which profoundly impregnates the Persian lyricism the poet from Weimar adopted.
However, one single aspect seemed insurmountable to the German poet: the despotism of God in the Islamic interpretation of him, and the example he represents of the figure embodying political authority. Goethe speaks of this in the notes and essays that accompany the volume of poems in his West-Eastern Divan:
But what will never enter into the Western spirit is the spiritual and bodily servility toward a lord and master that stems from the most ancient times, when kings first took the place of God […]
What Westerner could find it bearable that the Easterner not only strikes the earth nine times with his forehead, but offers his head for the king’s pleasure to use as he likes?
Finally with this remark we find Western incompatibility with Eastern despotism, the first expression of which dates back to Aeschylus’ Persians (472 BC), a tragedy based politically on the opposition between the acceptance of the yoke of servitude by the Persian subject and the insubordination in the name of freedom that animates the Athenian citizen. This opposition is eloquently expressed in the form of an allegory in the dream of Queen Atossa, wife of Darius and mother of Xerxes, the two emperors involved in the Persian wars, and who both experienced defeat, one at Marathon (490 BC), the other at Salamis (480 BC):
I had the impression that two women, in beautiful clothes,
one arrayed in Persian robes,
the other in Dorian robes, came into my sight,
surpassing by far the women of today in stature
and of faultless beauty; they were sisters from
the same blood; one lived in Greece, having received it
as ancestral land, and the other in a barbarous land.
I seemed to see them showing mestrife between them;
and my son, learning of this,
tried to contain and appease it. He harnessed them
to the yoke of a chariot, passing girths
around their neck. One, with this gear, became
proud as a citadel
and her mouth in the reins was easy to command;
but the other struggled; with both hands she tears
the harness from the chariot, pulling it towards her roughly,
without a bit, and breaks the yoke in half.
We would have to wait for Aragon’s Le Fou d’Elsa to find a work that takes its inspiration from Islamic culture in as ample, as dense a way as Goethe’s Divan. In this polyphonic book, which is not just a poem, as it is called on the cover, Aragon takes up the theme of the madness of loving, invented by the Arabs at the end of the seventh century through the legend of the madman from Leyla, Layla and Majnûn, and that will be illustrated in Europe by Tristan and Yseult, Romeo and Juliet, as well as by Werther or even in Nerval and Breton. Aragon honored with this book the Arab vocation of culture, and his arch-literary gesture has a political reach, since the poet-novelist makes this work a gift from the French language to the Arab aspect of Algeria. Aragon had conducted an erudite investigation into Arabic culture before writing his book, at the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 60’s, at the very instant when Algeria was covered in blood and when Camus knew that the outcome he dreamed of (reconciling all the native constituents of Algerian soil) demanded first “the recognition of the Arabic personality,” denied in Algeria by more than a century of colonial servitude. With Le Fou d’Elsa, Aragon realized this “recognition” in the work itself.
Such an experience also reveals that the Islamic corpus introduced into French literature, as well as the other great European languages, is dense enough to offer the poet an inexhaustible source of inspiration; it does not necessarily require mastery of the languages of Islam to enter the profundities, the secrets, the particularities of this culture and to exploit the devices and connections that enriched the European poet’s own work. Louis Aragon showed in his book an extraordinary capacity for assimilation and an amazing mimetic force that engaged him with the path of identification. It is the poetic and metaphysical Arab and Islamic code that gives structure to the work, and that is confronted with allusions to other places and centuries (from Russia, from the myth of Grenada and from the Spain that was formed inside the French literature, with Chateaubriand and Barrès, etc.). Grenada, just before its downfall, is the place where the poetic fiction unfolds. By opening the controversy about the future (a tense the Arabic language ignores), the question of the Granadan future joins the great queries of the twentieth century, between twilight melancholy (the theme of the fall, of old age) and the exaltation of resistance. With such varied procedures Aragon achieved a work that honors the poetics of the heterogeneous engendered by crossing borders and circulating among languages, cultures, places and centuries.
Opening up to the subject of Islam attracted that thinker and philosopher who wanted to integrate a part of Islam into his materials. This is what Jacques Derrida tried to do in his teaching in Ehess, during the public lectures devoted to the theme of the foreigner and of hospitality, when he put forward the need to enroll in an Islamic-Judeo-Christian perspective. When he analyzes the philoxenia of Abraham, he draws inspiration from the studies of Louis Massignon to integrate Islamic issues into his field of thought. The publication of part of these lectures bears mute witness to this contribution, which integrates the notions of sacred hospitality and of the sworn word elaborated on by Massignon after growing familiar with the texts and people of Islam. Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy also is eager to work with a perspective that integrates Islam into his reflections on monotheism. Alluding to the events of September 11th, he contrasts Huntington’s “war of civilizations” with the term that irrevocably annuls it, “civil war”:
The present state of the world is not a war of civilizations. It is a civil war: it is the internecine war of a city, of a civility, of a community spreading to the ends of the world and, because of this, to the extreme of their own concepts. At its extreme, a concept is broken, a distorted visage swells out, a gaping hole appears.
Nor is it a war of religions, or rather every war called religious war is a war inherent to monotheism, a religious scheme from the West and within it, from a division that spreads, again, past borders to extremes: to the East from the West, until it cracks and gapes wide in the very heart of the divine. Thus the West will turn out to have been only the exhaustion of the divine, in all the forms of monotheism, whether it be exhaustion by atheism or by fanaticism.
And finally I come to political integration. And I am speaking to America, which got the shock of September 11th and which uses power that authorizes it to be the judge of the universe, if it decides to apply the universal principle of justice. I speak to America, even if I know that such an address risks being useless, vain. I see three urgencies here. Two concern the recurring issues that are the state of Iraq and the Palestinian question. Here the politics of the double standard triumphs, by which the arrogance of injustice is expressed, which in turn feeds the rage of resentful men. When I witness current events unfolding as I write this, when I hear the suggestions made by responsible Americans, always partisan in the positions they express about the burning issues that reach us from the Near East, I tell myself that even the tragedy of September 11th was not enough to open the eyes of America and enlighten its discernment about the reasons for the hatred it arouses. Why doesn’t this America act to reestablish the sovereignty of Iraq, by putting an end to its leaders who have held the country hostage, by freeing the Iraqi people from the yoke it is under, and by proposing a Marshall Plan that would reconstruct the resources of a nation that could then become an ally of reason and good sense?
Why doesn’t America use its clout to find a reasonable resolution between Israel and Palestine, in the logic of two sovereign States, whose territories could be defined by international law recognizing the legitimacy of Israel with the borders drawn up before June 1967, and the sovereignty of Palestine as a viable and continuous geographical entity with Jerusalem as a shared capital? Why not act to compel the Palestinians to deny the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, while legitimizing their inclusion with the Palestinian State, along with financial compensation for their losses in Israel? Why not make Israel dismantle and abandon the settlements, as numerous in Gaza as they are in the West Bank? Why doesn’t America use its influence to make Israel realize the moral wrongs, the damages, and the harm done to the Palestinians? Why not convince Israel of the necessity to recognize the fact that its foundation was the origin of Palestinian misery, and to repent in its turn? Do we need to recall that before the creation of the state of Israel, the same land was inhabited by another people, which knew it as their home? About this fact, the inventor of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben- Yehuda, wrote in September 1881, upon disembarking at Jaffa:
I must admit that this first meeting with our Ishmael cousins was far from joyful. A depressing feeling of fear filled my soul, as if I were before a huge, menacing wall. I saw that they felt they were citizens of this country, land of my ancestors, and I their descendant, I was returning to this land as a stranger, son of a foreign land, of a foreign people […] I was suddenly crushed, overwhelmed with regrets rising up from the depths of my being. Perhaps my whole enterprise was vain and hollow, perhaps my dream of a rebirth of Israel on the ancestral land was only a dream that had no place in reality…
Clearly, it was the realization of the Zionist dream that created the Palestinian nightmare. This is a truth that will have to make its destined way into Israel’s consciousness.
How is it, moreover, that no one brings up the troubled past of Ariel Sharon, implicated in a war crime, since his responsibility was recognized in the Sabra and Chatila massacres by the investigation conducted by the democratic processes of the State of Israel itself? By what divine power is he protected so that no political or moral authority dare raise this deed of his earlier life, one that so dishonors and disqualifies him?
It is the exercise of injustice in impunity that feeds hatred and horrifying terrorism, which remains the weapon of the impoverished, the weak, those who have exhausted the resources of the law. Add to this disaster a demonization of the Palestinian, of the Arab, of the Muslim, revealing a racism as devastating as the new Arab anti-Semitism whose practices and pernicious effects I reported earlier. One of the highest religious authorities of Israel, one of its most prestigious rabbis, maintained racist anti-Arab ideas that were just as reprehensible as the anti-Semitic schemings of the sheikh from al-Azhar.
Israelis should become aware of the fact that their country was created at the time when Islam suffered the most unfavorable balance of power in its history, and that by coming into existence it abrogated a legitimacy that is at least one thousand three hundred years old (if you take away the century’s interruption when political authority in the Holy Land was exercised by the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem), and that such a divestiture can only inflict a deep wound. Voltaire had hypothetically stated that one of the rare “reasonable intolerances” he could imagine would be what would ensue if the people of Israel decided to reconstruct their State on the lands that the Bible attributes to them, for that would lead to an immense disorder. The fulfillment of such a plan would have conflicted with the “more than a thousand-year-old Mohammedan usurpation”:
[The Jews] would necessarily be obliged to destroy all the Turks, which goes without saying: for the Turks own the country of the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, Girgashites, Hevites, Araceans, Cineans, Hamateans, Samarians: all these peoples were put under a curse; their country, which was more than twenty-five leagues long, was given to the Jews by a number of successive covenants; they should come back into their property, which Mohammedans have usurped for more than a thousand years. But if the Jews reasoned thus today, it is clear that we could respond only by condemning them to the galleys. These are just about the only cases when intolerance seems reasonable.
But it is true that Voltaire was writing at a time when the balance of power did not reduce Islam to powerlessness.
The third political problem that deserves to be addressed is one that concerns the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States. An urgent debate should be opened on the nature of this alliance. Why are such privileged ties not dependent on political obligations of freedom and democracy? How can the United States treat as a friend a country where women are demeaned to the point that they aren’t even allowed to drive? How long will the United States refuse to consider Wahhabism, which in its fanatical version of the truth is implicated morally in the events of September 11 that struck the heart of America?
How can it be that the main advisor to the American president on Islamic questions, the lawyer David Forte, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College, doesn’t breathe a word against Wahhabism? Perhaps because he himself seems fascinated by extreme religion, and because he secretly admires the state of things in Wahhabite Arabia, out of some fundamentalist affinity, given the closeness of his sensibility with that of the most conservative circles of American Catholicism. Each time he deals with an anti-American Saudi, such as Osama bin Laden or one of the numerous Saudis counted among the terrorists of September 11, each time he criticizes one of them, he denounces his “Kharijite” tendencies. Why refer to that vanished sect of earliest Islam, which was in fact a paragon of fanaticism and violence, prescribing takfir, excommunication, at the least sign of half-heartedness or deviance? The criticism that unearths Kharijism to attack the fanatical tendencies of present-day fundamentalism was advanced in order to denounce the strictly legalistic tendencies of someone like Mawdûdi, who excludes from the Islamic community whoever does not perfectly and exemplarily apply the law modeled on the life of the Prophet and those of his companions most sanctified by tradition. The Americans will have to explain themselves to the Saudis; they will have to tell them, eye to eye, that Wahhabism in itself is enough to lead to murderous fanaticism. To the Saudi official who thinks, “We Saudis want to modernize and not necessarily westernize ourselves,” a phrase Huntington reports to illustrate his thesis, the Americans should dare to say, “You’re free to act as you like, but don’t be surprised if you engender monsters with such policies, all the more dangerous since they are sure of their innocence. Osama bin Laden is not an accident; he carries to its ultimate consequences the Wahhabism in which he was educated.”
I will finally evoke a few internal reasons, without having the time or the space to develop them. That would require another book. The first remedy for the sickness of Islam concerns the necessity to return to a profound awareness of the polemics, controversies and debates that have nourished the tradition. To struggle against forgetting requires a labor of anamnesis. It is important to articulate the reconstitution of meaning (starting with medieval traces and survivals) with a modern critical awareness so that the liberty of a plural, conflicting language, enduring disagreement with civility, can be established.
This critical attitude should embrace the legal question. To shape a law adapted to the advances of modern times, the Tunisian lawyer Mohammed Charfi, commenting on the case of the reforming jurist in Tunisia, recommends using talqîf, that makeshift form of fixing things invented and used by the fundamentalist reformers of the nineteenth century, Jamâl ad-Dîn Afghâni and Mohammed ‘Abduh:
For each rule inherited from Muslim law and judged today to be inhuman or ill-adapted to our time because it is contrary to the rights of man or to the principles of freedom and equality, one should try to go back to its origins to find a flaw. If it is attached to a hadîth, one should verify if it is authentic, and try to reinterpret it. This is not dishonest research, in the sense that one will not make the verse say the opposite of what it says, or introduce any doubt where the hadîth has strong chances of being authentic. But neither is this an entirely objective research without a priori. On the contrary, the researcher has already fixed an objective for himself, and tries to find the historical or semantic arguments to achieve it. He does not seek to understand the religion in itself, but rather to establish in it the justification of the new norm, which he thinks is fairer, and which he wants to establish. Without being erroneous or subjective, this is a goal-directed research.
Moreover, it is up to the Islamic States to rethink their teaching policies, in order to rid educational programs of the prevailing fundamentalism. Diffuse Wahhabism contaminates consciousnesses through the teaching transmitted in schools, and that is now supported by television. In this conspicuous area, we have the valuable, practical precedent methodically thought out by its promoter: the elaborate reform conducted by the same Mohammed Charfi, who was Minister of National Education (from 1989 to 1994) in his country, Tunisia:
…Teaching in Arab-Islamic countries is by nature conducive to the rise of fundamentalism. It needs to be purged of all aims contrary to the rights of man and to the foundations of the modern State. With a radical reform of the educational system, (…) the school could, in the near future, contribute to curing society of religious extremism.
 The “remedy is in the sickness” quote comes from Rousseau, Confessions (Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade, 1959),19.
 Louis Massignon, Explication de la badaliyya and La badaliyya et ses statuts (Cairo: Cahier vert, 1947).
 Louis Massignon, “L’Hégire d’Ismael,” in Les Trois Prières d’Abraham (Paris: Le Cerf, 1997) 68-72..
 Yehuda Halevi, Divan, 91, 107, 117, 127, 137, 138.
 Abdelwahab Meddeb, “L’Autre Exil occidental” [The other Occidental Exile], which follows upon his translation of Le Récit de l’exil occidental par Sohrawardi [The tale of Occidental Exile by Sohrawardi] (Paris: Fata Morgana, 1993) 27-43.
 Norman Daniel,“The Survival of Medieval Concepts,” in Islam and the West, 302-26.
 Ibid., 394-395.
 Platti, Islam… étrange?
 The reader has seen this at work all throughout this book.
 Goethe, Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann, (Wednesday, January 31, 1827), trans. by Jean Chuzeville (Paris: Gallimard, 1949, 1988).
 Qur’an, 14:4.
 Article devoted to “German Romanticism” published in Über Kunst und Altertum, 6:2, 1828. See Goethe, Writings on Art, 263.
 Goethe, West-Ostlicher Divan, bilingual [French and German] edition, trans. by Henri Lichtenberger (Aubier, 1940) 57.
 Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann, 393.
 Goethe, West-Eastern Divan, 362.
 Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. by Myrto Gondicas and Pierre Judet de La Combe (Chambéry: Comp’act, 2000) lines 181-196.
 Louis Aragon, Le Fou d’Elsa (Paris: Gallimard, 1963).
 André Miquel, Percy Kemp, Majnûn et Laylâ: l’amour fou (Paris: Sindbad, 1984).
 Albert Camus, Actuelles III, Chroniques algériennes, 1939-1958 (Paris: Gallimard, 1958) 151.
 Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond, De l’hospitalité, (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1997) 135. In this book two sessions of Derrida’s courses are transcribed: the fourth (January 10, 1996) had the title, “Question d’étranger: venue de l’étranger,” and the fifth (January 17, 1996) was entitled, “Pas d’hospitalité.”
 Jean-Luc Nancy, La Communauté affrontée (Paris: Galilée, 2001),11-12.
 Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Rêve traversé (A Dream Come True) trans.into French from the Hebrew by Gérard and Yvan Haddad (Paris: Éditions du Scribe, 1988) chapter 6. English edition translated by T. Muraoka; edited by George Mandel (Boulder : Westview Press, 1993).
 Voltaire, Traité sur la tolérance,123.
 For information about David Forte, see Franklin Foer, “Blind Faith,” in The New Republic, October 22, 2001.
 Maryam Jameelah, in the article already cited in which she criticizes her master Mawdûdi.
 The phrase “We Saudis want to modernize and not necessarily to Westernize ourselves” comes from Huntington, 110.
 Mohammed Charfi, Islam et liberté, le malentendu historique [Islam and freedom, historic misunderstanding], (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999) 137-138.
 Ibid., 228.
[to be continued]