Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (2)


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(2nd installment)


The Islamic world has been unceasingly  inconsolable in its destitution. It knew one very high point of civilization, accompanied by the boldness of hegemony. If we go back to the notion of “world capital” as proposed by Fernand Braudel, it is reasonable to suggest that before its displacement towards Europe, this concept was concretized in the Abassid Baghdad of the ninth and tenth centuries, in the Fatimid Cairo of the eleventh and the Mameluke Cairo of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. After that the world capital crossed over to the north shore of the Mediterranean with the Genoa-Venice duo, before it exiled itself, departing ever further from the Islamic world, by setting up first in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, then in London in the nineteenth  and in New York in the twentieth century — while hereafter we probably will see a process of migration towards the Pacific coast in the dense interactions between Asia and North America. Since the fifteenth century, the world-capital has thus moved geographically ever further away from the Islamic space.

For Islam, entropy has been at work since the fourteenth century, but it is only toward the end of the eighteenth (with Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt) that the Muslims themselves began to become conscious they are no longer at the same level as the West.  It is this lateness, this lag, which allowed a number of countries belonging to the Islamic territories to be colonized because they found themselves in the situation of the colonizable. The Muslim subject, who claimed superiority to or at least equality with the Western subject, cannot grasp the process that has led him to such weakness when faced with the centuries-old counterpart, enemy or adversary, or at times partner and even ally, depending on the circumstances. In reaction to this state of affairs, ressentiment against the Occidentals will arise among Arabs and Muslims. (I am taking up the very useful concept of ressentiment as developed by Nietzsche in On The Genealogy of Morals.[1]) Nietzsche himself thought that the Muslim (or more precisely, Arab) subject was someone who belonged to a people who throughout the ages had acted more in conformity with aristocratic morality, the morality of affirmation, someone who illuminates, someone who gives without trying to receive [2]. The situation of the man of ressentiment, on the other hand, is to be in the position of the one who receives but who does not have the means to give; he is the one who cannot affirm. Thus the Muslim subject is no longer the man of the “yes” that illuminates the world and creates a naturally hegemonic being. From sovereign being he has slowly become the man of the “no,” the one who refuses, who is no longer active but only re-active, the one who accumulates hatred and waits only for the hour of revenge. This sentiment, initially unknown to the Islamic subject, will imperceptibly grow in him and take over his center. I believe that the fundamentalist actions whose agent is the Muslim subject can be explained by the growth of the subject’s ressentiment, a condition that had historically been unknown to him since his first appearance as an stage of history as an individual.

This new feeling did not install itself mechanically after the defeat of colonial confrontation: much time passed before the germ of ressentiment started to grow. As proof of this I would propose the figure of the Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883), who had lost nothing of his aristocratic dignity despite the defeat of 1847, his incarceration in France and his expatriation towards the Orient in 1852. He never knew ressentiment. This man of the sword and the pen dedicated himself in his Damascene exile to the teaching of the esoteric sciences, deepening the centuries-old furrow of his master Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) whose works he interpreted and published. During the troubles of 1860,  he will apply the Akhbarian doctrine that preaches the equality of beliefs.[3] Absent from Damascus when Muslims (carried away by the herd instinct that characterizes masses) attacked the Christians of the city, but hearing that vile events had shaken the city, he hurried back and saved many lives; he had the Christians gather in groups and led them to safety in the citadel.

A Christian survivor, Mikhayil Mishaqa, bore witness to this action. Hundreds of fugitives (European consuls and Syrian Christians) fled towards Abd el-Kader’s quarters on the banks of the river Barada, and the excited crowd wanted to attack them. So the emir “had his horse saddled.” [4]  The same emir recalls in one of his Mawaqif  (“Spiritual Stations”) how during one of his Damascus sessions, he was questioned by a member of the audience who was worried about the effects of the defeat on the Muslims: these had started to imitate the Christians (i.e. the Westerners) in the way they dressed, ate and lived. In short, one is faced with an early questioning of the acculturation in the process of being experienced by the Islamic countries at the beginning of the Westernization of the world.[5]

We cannot find the smallest trace of ressentiment in the emir’s response. After a traditional theological argument (if the Muslim subject has known defeat, it must have been because he was tepid and negligent in the service his God asked him to perform); after another argument of psychological common sense (it is a fact of human nature that, through fascination, the vanquished imitate the victor, and will even go so far as to learn his language); after an accurate sociological observation (first adopted by the elite, the process of imitation then propagates like poison throughout the whole social body); the emir than remembers the theory of Divine Names as constructed by his medieval master (Ibn ‘Arabi), the names that govern all human activities and preside over all events that occur; thus he invents the divine name of Khadhil (the deserting god who abandons you) to explain the defeat of the Muslim in the face of the European (which was nothing else than the emir’s own defeat).

Even if such a name can be traced to a verbal form in Holy Writ (the Qur’an says: “If Allah assists you, then there is none that can overcome you, and if He forsakes you — yakddhulu-kum —, who is there then that can assist you after Him?”), it is clear that the emir’s invention is of astonishing audacity.[6] His boldness is the sign of a freedom that can at least be assimilated to what traditional theology calls a bid’a, a blamable innovation. All through his development, the emir is inspired by the following verse: God abandons the Muslims without aiding the infidels. The defeat of the believer is due to God’s abandonment; but the unbeliever’s victory does not result from His help. This vision of divine effect, negative for oneself without being positive for the enemy, preserves the horizon of faith during the ordeal.

Thus aristocratic man believes himself to have enough sovereignty to take the liberty to invent the actualization of tradition; and it is his familiarity with the hermeneutical method of ta’wil that authorizes and legitimizes his action. This familiarity predisposes him to emulate his audacious predecessors. Such doctrinal boldness cannot be in the reach of the half-educated who today are legion in Islamic societies, which during the period of decolonization have experienced democratization without ever tasting democracy. It is in such a context that the mutation took place: from being aristocratic, the Muslim subject gradually became the man of ressentiment, this frustrated, dissatisfied man who believes himself to be better than the conditions imposed on him; like every half-educated person, he turns out to be (in his accumulated refusals and hatreds) a candidate for revenge, predisposed to insurrectionary action and all it demands in terms of dissimulation and sacrifice.

But the real origin of this development, which lies at the point where psychology and ethics intersects, is the end of creativity, the end of the contributions that made Islamic civilization.  Since he has become aware of his sterility, the Islamic subject has grown inconsolable in his bereftness. Now, this state of affairs does not date from the colonial era; the imperial role that the majority of Islamic countries experienced is not the cause of their decline but the consequence of it: the Muslim subject had not been creative for several centuries in the scientific domain, nor was he a master of technical development. It took him more than a century to master technology, something that happened in the postcolonial phase; as I have already said, it is the phase of the Americanization of the world that permitted this acquisition. It belongs to the domain of consumption and functioning, and not to that of production and invention. It is useful primarily for the expansion of markets. However, apart from some individuals of Islamic origin working in Western research institutions, the Muslim subject, inside the horizon of his own symbolic and linguistic territoriality, remains excluded from the scientific spirit. He is not involved in the conception of the airplane, nor in its invention, nor even in its production, but he can pilot the flying machine very well, and go as far as to steer it to destruction.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufman, Vintage. Cf. pp 36-40, 121-129.

[2] ibid. p. 41.

[3] Akhbarian: Ibn Arabi was known as “el sheikh el-akhbar,” the great sheikh or master. (Translator’s note.)

[4] Mikhayil Mishaqa, Murder, Mayhem, Pillage and Plunder: The History of Lebanon in the 18th and 19th centuries, translated by W.M. Thackston Jr., State University of New York Press, Albany 1988.

[5] Al-Mawâqif, station 364, volume III, folio 97 verso and folio 99 recto, reproduction /hors commerce/ of the partially autograph manuscript, published on the occasion of the emir’s centenary, Algiers, 1983. A choice of these stations was translated from Arabic into French by Michel Chodkievicz in: Emir Abd el-Kader, Ecrits Spirituels, Le Seuil, Paris 1982.

[6] Qur’an, III,160.


The major events in Islam happened very early on. But the process of their mutation was interrupted too soon. The very beginning of the ninth century saw the birth of a rationalist movement animated by those whom we call the Mu’tazilites. These thinkers tried to disrupt two then dominant ideas: they criticized the Islamic dogma which states that the Qur’an (like God) is uncreated and has come down from heaven as it is in itself and in eternity. Their answer to this dogma is that, indeed, the Qur’an is of divine origin, but that the concretization of the Holy Writ in a terrestrial language can only be created by God at the moment of its Revelation. These sectarians think that those who claim that the Qur’an is uncreated are installing an Islamic equivalent of the Christian sense of incarnation: the Qur’anic letter would thus be the incarnation of God. The literalists could thus easily be mistaken as Christians who identify Christ with God because he is His Word. These Mu’tazilites removed God from the world, they gave him back to his unknowability, they neutralized him in a transcendence that liberated mankind from predestination and made it alone responsible for its actions.

This theological movement became the official state ideology — the Caliph himself, al-Ma’mun (786-833), the son of Harun al-Rashid, wanted to impose it on all his subjects.[1] The Caliphate in fact set up a sort of inquisition (the Mihna, inaugurated in 833) that attacked with great violence the contemporary literalist school in the person of its most eloquent representative Ibn Hanbal (780-circa 855). It is important to remember this moment in history because in the genealogy of fundamentalism it is impossible not to refer to this ninth century personage, who was subjected to the worst tortures because in the name of his literalism he refused to accept the theses of the Mu’tazilites. His resistance found echo and support among people anxious for the return of Qur’anic orthodoxy.

The great limitation of the Mu’tazilites’ rationalist movement was that it did not succeed in evolving into an Enlightenment, above all because it sought to impose its point of view through the most radical violence, using the means at the disposal of an Oriental despot (al-Ma’mun wanted to extend his power over the theological domain as a whole; to achieve this aim he gave himself the title of imam and imposed his interpretation on the constituted bodies of the ulemas, scholars in theology). Orthodoxy was reestablished at the center of power as soon as Mutawakkil, the third successor of al-Mamun, took over (847). Now the Mu’tazilites were made to suffer in their turn — first by their complete marginalization  and then by their slow but certain extinction — what they had made their adversaries suffer,  who not only survived them but prospered.

During this period (as precocious in its conflicts as in its complexity and promise), the Caliph al-Mamun played an important role in acclimatizing the Greek heritage in the Arab language. This Caliph, so tradition tells us, had a dream of Aristotle, who asked him to have his books translated into Arabic. It is as if every process that leads to an Enlightenment were triggered by a love for the Greeks and the restoration of their ways of thinking and feeling. During a campaign against the Byzantines, al-Mamun came across the Neo-platonic community of the Sabæns in the Harran; a bold fatwa likened them formally to the enigmatic Sabi’un, to whom the Qur’an had given the status of a people of the Book: “Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabæns, …”[2]. So the Holy Book put the Sabaens on equal footing with the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians. These Sabæns will provide Islam with a number of scholars and translators from the Greek.

The caliph al-Mamun encouraged the confrontation of ideas in the heart of the city by organizing controversies between sectarians of diverse faiths and between Muslim theologians of various schools of thought. Already at this early period our literalists were stubbornly opposed to any foreign borrowings as well as to the presence, in the city, of contradictory voices, which their ears perceived as blasphemous. Yet this staging of a forum where disagreement was presented was itself the work of a ruler. Which keeps us from affirming that the exercise of reason, in its triumph, was accompanied by freedom – which remained the great unknown, especially in its political form.

It was in this Baghdad of the first part of the ninth century that the great scientific adventure of Arabic literature begins, an adventure that will last into the sixteenth century; it is at this time that the school of astronomy of Baghdad was created, founded both on speculative calculations and on observation. It is also in this city that algebra was invented by al-Khwarizmi, who dedicated his treatise to al-Mamun.

Besides this scientific movement, a poetic revolution was born that reminds us of the poetic revolution that took place in France in the nineteenth century. If the reader is able to take into account context and transhistoricity, it becomes possible to taste how the words of these Arab poets resonate with those of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and even Mallarmé. In the body of work created by these Arab poets one can distinguish poetic processes as varied as those of the French poets I have just cited. To keep from encumbering the reader with too many names, let me just cite the recognizably Mallarméan case of the Syrian Christian poet Abu Tammam (806-845) — his father ran a tavern in Damascus. By using odd syntactical devices, rare words, antitheses and abstractions, and by a cultivation of paronomasia, he inflected the occasional verse that was his chosen genre (panegyrics, threnodies, satires, description of battles) towards a hieratic and hermetic poetry that demands interpretation, and that comes to its full realization only in the fullness of commentary.  His is the following rather compassionate and limpid (he was able to write like that too) distich that speaks of the eternity of love in a dialectic of absence and presence :

What is it consoles me in your absence
if not the memory of you which doesn’t fade

Of all the guests you are the closest and
even if you are far sadness brings you close [3]

To show a likeness with Baudelaire, the emergence of a critical and scandalous individual making use of transgression as the engine of the poem, I will evoke Abu Nuwas (762-circa 813): he was one of the most radical figures of this poetic revolution. An Arab-Persian poet writing very provocatively in Arabic, he sang the praises of wine (forbidden in Islam) and homosexual love; he was an existentialist who brought his own experiences to bear on his poems. The critics of his era saw him as the main figure of the school of the Moderns (the Muhdathun).  In a polemical way he turned his back on the poetry of Arab origins rooted in the desert and in nomadism. He considered that way of being a throwback to the poverty that marked its region and to the difficult life such penury engenders; to the original desert he contrasted the conquest of the metropolis and the pleasures it provides, all the way to the tragedy of profligate spending and excess that make for the jouissance of the provocative and reckless dandy as well as for the wear and tear on him, diverted from religious practice by what presents itself to his senses. Moreover, he helped impose a quasi arithmetic formal unity and rigor onto a rhapsodic, discontinuous, unbridled poetic tradition. We still read this poetry from the high Middle Ages as if it had been written yesterday, as if the ink had not yet had time to dry. Just imagine those spectacular moments of creation happening in that workshop opened in Baghdad in the ninth century! As you can see, the attempt to renovate took place very early on, but it was aborted.

The following two poetic extracts illustrate the mischievous joy of this lively transgressor, whose verbal lushness could certainly be likened to the ‘abath, that scandalous vanity which discredits any art form in the eyes of our narrow-minded contemporary fundamentalists:

Serve me and serve Joseph
this tasty wine
that makes one thrill

Push trouble out of your life
keep only its peace

Fill my glass to the brim
I don’t want cups
that are only half full

Put down the gourd
and beside it the Book

Drink three glasses
and recite a verse

Good has mingled with bad
and if God forgives

He will win in whom the one
has wiped out the other, basta!

Or, from another one:

To one who asks me if I want to go to Mecca
I answer yes – when the pleasures
of Baghdad will been exhausted
For how could I make the pilgrimage
as long as I remain immersed
in brothel or tavern? [4]

[1]For information concerning al-Ma’mun, I draw in part on the article concerning him by M. Rekaya in the Encyclopédie de l’Islam, VI. p. 315-323, E.J. Brill and G.P. Maisonneuve & Larose, Leiden-Paris, 1991.

[2]Qur’ān, II,62.

[3] Abu Tammam, Divan, edited and commented by Ilya al-Hawi, section 212, p. 718, 1981. (The translations with no tranlators’ name appended were done from Arabic into French by the author, and from French into Arabic by PJ & CM).

[4] Abu Nuwas, Divan, ed. and with a commentary by A.A.M. al-Ghazali, p. 120 (“Wine and the Qur’ān”) and p. 167 (“The Pleasures of Baghdad”), Beyrouth, 1982. To better know this poet, cf. Jamal Bencheikh, “Poésies bachiques d’Abû Nuwâs, thèmes et personages,” p. 7-83, Bulletin d’études orientales, tome xviii, 1963-1964, Damascus, 1964.

[to be continued]

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2 Responses

  1. Poo says:

    Abdelwahab Meddeb has described Muslims and Islam not in terms of evolution or devolution, but in a state of near total inertia.

    Better he should seek out another, more applicable quote from Friedrich Nietzsche.

    “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” Seems applicable.

    It is true that Islam has “experienced democratization without ever tasting democracy.” The Arab Spring, as predicted, has become the Christian Winter. Sadly it has become that and worse for many more than just Christians.

    Abdelwahab Meddeb is also correct when he cites the paucity of education amongst the masses. The danger is clear, “like every half-educated person, he turns out to be (in his accumulated refusals and hatreds) a candidate for revenge…” Again, sadly true.

    “The end of creativity” and the awareness “of his sterility” was not, however, forced upon the Islamic world. It was not the “colonial era” as Abdelwahab Meddeb freely admits. Of course, there are “consequences” to all events but none require the brain or creative spirit to be shut off. As he so clearly demonstrates, it once flourished.

    “The Muslim subject had not been creative for several centuries in the scientific domain, nor was he a master of technical development. It took him more than a century to master technology…”,

    “Americanization” is an over-used term. It has become a derogatory one in some circles. That is unfortunate. Many western countries, including my own, are out there promoting their goods and services as well as their cultures and lifestyles, such as they are. But the phrase has legs so what the hell.

    Americanization did not permit “acquisition” as Abdelwahab Meddeb suggests. It suits his thesis but is untrue. “Americanization” encouraged acquisition as it did democracy and free enterprise. Free elections and free markets are to everyone’s benefit as is free speech. Fact is though, the latter is unlikely to flourish without the former.

    As stated at the outset, “a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.” So it does.

    Abdelwahab Meddeb has given us an engaging and insightful analysis with many interesting quotes and references. It is a wonderful read. In the end, or thus far however, he has achieved little more than provide a series of well documented excuses for bad behaviour. In a society of the coddled, I suppose anything can be justified. He would a do well to remember another quote from Friedrich Nietzsche.

    “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

  2. khalid says:

    Thank you, Pierre, for making this available.

    Fascinating stuff-though it poses difficult questions-as difficult, perhaps, as those relating to the possible relation between the modern west and mass violence (the Camps, the Gulags, the Trenches, the Bomb).



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