Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (3)


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(3rd installment)


If we look simultaneously at science, the state of technology and the state of the arts, we can say that Islamic civilization kept pace with what was happening in Europe until the baroque and classical eras. There can indeed be an equivalence between what happened in Islam in the eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth centuries and what was created in Europe up to the seventeenth century. Islam came very close to the Cartesian, Keplerian, Copernican and Galilean threshold [1]. From the seventeenth century forward, and through the revolutions in thought symbolized by the names just mentioned, there evolved a movement that will lead to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.  This Enlightenment will detach Europe from the other great civilizations, from the Islamic as well as from the Chinese and from the Indian civilizations. It is the eighteenth century that caused the separation of the West, with the fascinating accumulation of ideas concretized by the events of 1789. According to Hegel, rarely had a historical rupture been thought through as deeply before actually occurring. With the French Revolution, the idea preceded the fact: the former made the latter ineluctable [2].

And yet, at the end of the seventeenth and at the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, both in regard to the material life of the societies and to the morality that framed them, the Islamic polis was considered as equal by those Europeans who were confronted by it. Two examples illustrate this sense of equality. In his anthology of oriental sayings and maxims, Antoine Galland (1646-1714) tries to enrich the European moral conscience by drawing on teachings of Arab, Turkish and Persian origin [3]. And in her letters, Lady Mary Montagu, the wife of the English Ambassador to the Sublime Porte (1717-1718), at times judged the Ottoman situation as more positive than the European one, especially concerning religious tolerance. She expressed these thoughts after her conversations with the religious scholar, Effendi Ahmad Bey, in whose house she had lived for three weeks in Belgrade. She noted that the most widely shared opinion, if one sought out the secret of the effendis, comes down to a sort of deism corresponding most probably to the spirit of Akbarism (the relativist theory of Ibn ‘Arabi) that pervades the Ottoman elites [4].

And this eighteenth century, founded essentially on the broadening of the concept of freedom and on strengthening the conception of the individual and the rights of men, also experienced the explosion of the consubstantial link between the political and the religious. The problematic that flowered, crystallized and proposed the solutions that 18C European would experience (and on which the future would be built), was located by the historians as originating in an Arabo-Occidental text, the famous Decisive Discourse by Averroës (1126-1198) [5].  In this book the Cordovan philosopher systematizes the thought inaugurated by the first hellenizing philosopher from Baghdad, al-Kindi (796-873). Averroes takes up and deepens al-Kindi’s reflection on the relation between religion and philosophy, theology and technique — philosophy being perceived as the logical technique which founds his method (what Averroës in Arabic calls ela, i.e. the instrument, and the organon, the instrument of thought as inherited via Aristotle, the aim of which is to think the inexhaustible articulation of language on the world). The first station in this long process carried this problematic to the European — Christian primarily, but also Jews [6]. In this philosophical adventure, which canonized the separation of the fields, the ideas circulated from Greek to Arabic, then to Latin, to Hebrew, and to the modern European languages.  That’s where the beginning of the problematic lies, and its evolution will pass through the Averroists, the European ones, notably. In Islam we truly have the same perspective as the Western perspective, but the process stopped happening in Arabic, whereas it continued in the European languages.

It would be erroneous to believe that the energy of thought and of creation died out in Islam with the lack of Averroist lineage. Henry Corbin has reminded us in his books how fertile the Avicenian influence was as well in Arabic as in Persian, especially via the Persian Platonists [7]. The latter were marked by the Plotinian inheritance (long extracts of the Enneads were known in Arabic from the beginning of the tenth century on, via the Theology wrongfully attributed to Aristotle). Add to this the meditation of Avicenna (980-1037) — who spiritualizes the Aristotelian legacy; of Shurawardi (1155-1191) — who integrates the Zoroastrian heritage; and of Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) — who adds to his interpretive audacities the ardor of interior experience. This movement of thinking and being will produce the great minds of the seventeenth century — such as Molla Sadra Shirazi (d. 1640) — and even beyond, with the Shaykhis school (around the city of Kerman) which continued to produce great masters until the nineteenth century. One changes horizons with this spiritualist and rather Shiite movement, though it does, however, intersect with the speculative thinkers of Sunnite akhbarian Sufism (the latter will produce great texts until the seventeenth century, such as those of the Syrian Abd al-Ghani an-Nabulusi (d. 1731), and even in the nineteenth century, such as those of the already mentioned Algerian expatriate, the emir Abd el-Kader). This perspective will end up privileging “the ontological infinite over cosmological finitude[8].”

What interests these thinkers passionately is the continent of the soul and, if politics enters this thought, it will be a politics that will put the soul in command. Those who inhabit with their ardor the very rich continent of the soul live, in fact and in thought, the separation from the mundane area of politics. It is much more a poetic and metaphysical retreat than a desertion in the face of the responsibility awakened by the fate of the polis. Through this retreat it is a spiritual tradition that gains in depth and unites with the spirit of aristocratic morality, one that represents the essence of Islamic civilization.

Just the same, scientific activity did not cease. I’ll offer as proof the ongoing astronomical research and observations in Central Asia, in continuation of the international school of Maragha (1259-1316). There was also Samarkand (whose observatory was founded in 1420 and remained active until at least 1500) as Istanbul  (which was given its observatory by the scholar Taqiy ad-Din in 1575) [9]. Moreover, the arts continued to flourish, in architecture as well as in painting, in the various Islamic States: the Timurid state in Central Asia (fifteenth century), the Safevid state in Persia (fifteenth to seventeenth century), the Moghul state in North India (seventeenth and eighteenth century), the Ottoman state on the three continents over which the empire spread (fourteenth to nineteenth century).

[1] Ahmed Djebbar, Une histoire de la science arabe, entretiens avec Jean Rosmorduc, p. 101-106 and p. 366-370, Points-Sciences, le Seuil, Paris 2001.

[2] Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, translated and with an introduction by J.B Baillie, Harper Torchbooks, 1967. See more specifically the chapter “Enlightenment” (pp 559-598)

[3] Antoine Galland, Les paroles remarquables, les bons mots et les maxims des Orientaux, cf. especially the introduction by A. Meddeb, “La Sagesse des Orientaux,” p. 5-14, Maisonneuve & Larose, Paris 1999.

[4] For  Mary Wortley Montagu, see here & here.  Isobel Grundy (Editor), Selected Letters, Penguin USA, 1997.

[5] Averroès, Discours décisif, ed. bilingue, trad.inédite, notes et dossier de Marc Geoffroy, GF-Flammarion, Paris, 1996.

[6] cf. Alain de Libera, Penser au Moyen Âge, Seuil, Paris 1991. Also see Maurice-Ruben Hayoun and Alain de Libera, Averroès et l’averroïsme, Que Sais-je, PUF, Paris, 1991.

[7] cf. among others his Histoire de la philosophie islamique, Gallimard, paris, 1974.

[8] Christian Jambet, Se rendre immortel, p. 86, Fata Morgana, 2000.

[9] cf. Régis Morelon, “Panorama général de l’astronomie arabe,” dans l’ouvrage collectif dirigé par Roshdi Rashed, Histoire des sciences arabes, tome I, p. 29-30, Le Seuil, Paris, 1997.


It is essential to detach ourselves from the stereotypical notion that Islamic civilization lost its fertility at the end of the twelfth century, in synchronicity with the end of Averroism and the theological reaction this philosophic oeuvre gave rise to. At most we could say that from the fifteenth century onward a kind of entropy took hold of minds and set them on a slow yet inexorable curve toward decline. And yet, what was built and invented in the princely Timurid environment (in the region of Samarkand, Bokhara, Tashkent, Herat) is in no way inferior to the contemporary brilliance of the Quattrocento in the Florence of the Medicis and in the Burgundy of the Limbourgs. These same Timurids are abundantly quoted by Antoine Galland in his Remarkable Sayings, through which he sought to become the Plutarch of the Muslims. On many occasions Galland evoked the Timurid sovereign Shah Rokh, a descendant of Tamerlane, as the figure of the smart if not enlightened, monarch he sets us an edifying example for the European kings [1].

These days, in the face of the political woes of the Islamic polis, in the face of the irresistible propagation of fundamentalism, it is fashionable among certain intellectuals who claim modernity to neglect this intense creativity over the long years. They neutralize this contribution to civilization by limiting it to the princely environment, and by attributing it to mystics, a conjunction they see as paralyzing necessary political reforms. Armed thus with the proof of political failure, these intellectual critics preach a return to Averroës to patch together a civil viability through recourse to a procedure that would relativize Western borrowings, which, if not adopted, would be wounding and even ignominious, in their eyes [2]. Such intellectuals trot out yet again the dialectic of the particular and the universal to heal themselves of the sickness of identity in a world objectively Westernized, and in which everyone ought to serenely appropriate the insights of the Western Enlightenment.

It is by such appropriations that the truth of the Enlightenment will shine in its full brightness: If every Non-Westerner uses its light, then this truth will finally be rid of the smoke-screen that veils things when used perversely by the descendants of those who first offered it to mankind. The denial of the principle by the historical actions of the Westerners does not suffice to disqualify the idea erected as a principle.

This failing was noticed very early on, as long ago as 1834, in the first Algerian text written in French, The Mirror, by Hamdane Khodja. This is a confused book whose value for us lies only in a remark on the second page of the preface, which formulates what will be the irrefutable argument of every anti-colonial stance. At the very moment when, in the name of the liberty of the people, we aid the struggles of Belgium, Greece and Poland in Europe, France — creator of that concept of liberty — is enslaving another people in Africa:

I see Greece succored and established on a firm base after having been liberated from the Ottoman Empire. I see the Belgian people separated from Holland because of some difference in their political and religious principles. I see all free peoples display concern for the Poles and the reestablishment of their nationality, and I also see the British government immortalizing its glory by the emancipation of the Negroes, and the British parliament sacrificing half a billion pounds to realize this emancipation, and then as I return to cast my gaze on the country of Algiers, I see its unhappy inhabitants placed under the yoke of despotism, extermination and all the evils of war, and all these horrors are committed in the name of free France [3].

This says it all. With this statement we locate one of the very first denunciations of that Occidental perversity that causes the European to act against the idea (that he himself set forth as a principle) when the preservation of his hegemony demands it.

Will we find ourselves forced to agree with the critique that Carl Schmitt formulated in 1926, concerning colonial empires? The German philosopher of law decries the illusion of democratic universality, which leads to the opposition between the law of the state and the rights of the peoples, and thinks that homogeneity and equality exist only inside sameness, which annuls the universal. Democracy was then limited to the Occident, which found itself incapable of creating universal equality. In a colonial situation, democracy turns out to be founded only on the concept of internal homogeneity and equality.

Colonies, protectorates, mandates, interventionist charters, and other analogous forms create a relationship of dependency which means that today a democracy can dominate a population that is foreign to it without making it into citizens, and make it dependent on democratic states while simultaneously keeping it apart from that state. That is the political and governmental meaning of the eloquent formula: ‘The colonized populations are politically excluded and juridically included.’[4]

According to Schmitt, the idea of universal — and thus absolute — equality annuls itself; it is an empty concept that turns on itself: “Up until now there has not existed any democracy that didn’t recognize the concept of the foreigner and that would have tried to implement the equality of all men.[5]”

And Schmitt ends up defining colonies with this lapidary formula: “Dependency in relation to the rights of the people, otherness in relation to state law.[6]”

Close to a century later this definition extends Hamdane Khodja’s remark. Every Algerian who read it when it was written could recognize himself in it.

Now that we live in the post-colonial era, are we able to say that these perversions and illusions have ceased to exist? Or are they hiding behind other masks and disguises? If these failings continue to manifest themselves, we can state without risk of error that their persistence feeds the resentment of the subject who experiences its effects. Such is the case with the Islamic subject.

[1]  Antoine Galland, , Les Paroles remarquables, les bons mots, et les maximes des Orientaux, pp. 101-107, Maisonneuve et Larose, 1999.

[2] This tendency is represented by the Moroccan scholar Mohamed Abed al-Jabri. See his introduction to Averroes’s Arabic paraphrase of Plato’s Republic, in which he writes: “With the return of this book to Arabic we proudly ascertain that the answers for our present day political problems are found in our own heritage.” Averrroës, Commentary on Plato’s republic, introduction by Mohamed Abed al-Jabri (Beirut, 1998) p. 9-10.

[3] Hamdane Khodja, Le Miroir, p.38, Sindbad, Paris, 1983.

[4] Carl Schmitt, “Der Gegensatz von Parlamentarismus und moderner Massendemokratie,” in Positionen und Begriffe, p. 68, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, 1994.

[5] ibid., p. 69

[6] ibid.


The return to Averroës may, however, not be without pedagogical value in guiding the Islamic subject through the confusion that disorients him and opens it up to harkening to the disastrous fundamentalist illusion. Certainly it doesn’t seem meaningless to go back to a twelfth century thinker who in your own language has analyzed and resolved problems encountered in his time that continue to beset your contemporaries. Such concerns, for example, are the relation to the other and the inequality of women.

The relation to the other, to the stranger, is set forth admirably at the beginning of the Averroes’ Decisive Discourse [1]. And the reasoning of the medieval Cordovan philosopher can indeed provide the anxious identity-seekers of today with an answer. In truth, it is common sense itself which takes hold of the question through that technical aspect that deals with the legitimacy of borrowing.

In order to use his reason to gain knowledge of God and of the whole of the creation God has endowed with being, Averroës recommends the use of inference as a method which extracts the unknown from the known. This method can be assimilated to the syllogism with its premises and species; it plays the role of the instrument for theoretical thought, a role comparable to that of the tool in practical activities. Concerning recourse to the logical instrument (the rational syllogism), Averroës notes that the first generations of Muslims (who constitute the basis of the tradition) did not know this instrument. He brushes aside the suspicion of bid’a, the “reprehensible innovation” that we have already come across in relation to the Emir Abd el-Kader and which the conservatives invoke to obstruct new avenues opened by borrowing and adaptation of foreign inventions. Averroes believes that it is foolish to waste time reinventing for oneself what has already been invented by others. The accumulation of knowledge is universal. Anybody can draw on it, whatever his ethnic, language or religious background.  By calling for the utilization of the method of the Ancients (the ancient Greeks, that is) Averroës overwhelmed the dogma of the Jahiliyya, that era of ignorance abolished by the age of grace introduced by Islam. Not only did he believe that new nations have to take advantage of the memory stores of previous peoples, he further set up a welcoming formula for his borrowings: we should rejoice and thank the ancient thinkers for everything they invented that conforms to the truth, while warning the public of the excusable errors of the ancients. Until this assertion the word that designated the ancient Greeks was the Arab word qudâma, which means the Ancients, i.e. the “Ancients from before the apparition of the nation articulated by the Islamic law.[2]”

In a second move, Averroës ended up by creating a rather beautiful ambivalence when, invoking “those who came before us among the ancient peoples,” he used the term umam as-sâlifa [3]. This expression makes use of an attributive adjective based on the root s.l.f., the very root from which is derived the word that designates “the pious ancient ones” of Medina, those salafs, who are constantly spoken of through the history of Islam by all who call for a return to origins (without forgetting to count among these the nineteenth century fundamentalists and their chief figure, Sheik Mohammed ‘Abduh (1849-1905), as well as contemporary fundamentalists)[4]. It is as if the Arab Aristotelian from Spain were subconsciously expressing a desire to con/fuse the Greeks, heathen foreigners, with the model figures that run through the Islamic myth.

Concerning the question of women, this other form of alterity based on sexual difference, Averroës analyzes it in his paraphrase of Plato’s Republic. The original Arabic version of the book is lost and has come down to us in a Hebrew translation made in 1321 by Samuel ben Yehuda, a Jew from Marseilles, in the citadel of Beaucaire [5]. We also have a 1491 Latin translation based on the Hebrew version and done by one of Pico della Mirandola’s Jewish students. In this way Florentine Neoplatonism of the late Quattrocento was in its turn able to enjoy the Arab philosopher’s commentary.

Without Aristotle’s Politics available to him, Averroës decided to read Plato’s utopia in an active manner (summary, commentary, actualization). And he finds himself in agreement with the Athenian philosopher concerning the natural equality between men and women. This is why either sex can take part in great things: Women can be philosophers, military and political leaders. But his equality does not hide the difference that separates the sexes: If men can be more diligent at their tasks, women can be more skillful in the practice of certain arts. This is the case for musical interpretation. Thus it is said that melodies achieve perfection if men preside over their composition and women over their execution. It is clear that since they share the same nature, men and women can exercise the same professions in the city. But since women are physically weaker, they should be responsible for less arduous tasks. They are even capable of mastering the art of war, as has been noted in the barbaric countries that stretch out beyond the frontiers of the Empire. To illustrate these assertions, Averroës takes up once more the animal image used at the beginning of the text concerning the class of the guardians: Although weaker, female guard dogs are as ferocious as their male counterparts when it comes to fighting the hyenas that attack the herds [6].

After the approving summary comes the actualization, concretized in the course of the commentary when Averroës attributes to certain women — the intelligent and well disposed — the possibility of attaining political leadership and authority. He must be thinking about Islam specifically when he notes that certain laws prohibit women from exercising supreme power (what he calls the “great imamat”) because of the conviction that such women could represent only rare cases.

Otherwise, the women of these cities (the demonstrative pronoun points to the Andalusian cities Averroës knew) remain excluded from participation in great things because they dedicated themselves to the care of their husbands and to childbearing, breast-feeding and the children’s education, tasks that occupied them completely. In this way the women resemble plants. And as their upkeep is a heavy burden for the men, they also become one of causes of the poverty of these cities, because they do not participate in necessary activities — they only augment production a little via rudimentary tasks like spinning and weaving. This is Averroës’ calm witness, naturally favoring the equality of women and implicitly preaching their emancipation. By his recourse to the economic argument he anticipates contemporary feminist theories that link the liberation of women to their participation in production, rescuing them from financial dependency, which leads to all the other kinds of dependency. This defense of women is written in Arabic by a Muslim man of the twelfth century; it can still serve as plea to put an end to the inequality and the confinement that is so often women’s lot in many Islamic countries, today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

[1] Averroës, Decisive Treatise. The following development draws on pages 106-113.

[2] ibid. p. 110

[3] ibid. p. 112

[4] We shall see that the movement he gave rise to was called the salafyia, in reference to those same salafs.

[5] E.I.J. Rosenthal, Averroës’ Commentary on Plato’s Republic, Cambridge, 1956. Critics pointed out the errors of translation in this book, which led Ralph Lerner to propose another one, Averroës on Plato’s Republic, Cornell University Press, 1974. This text returned to Arabic with the help of Ahmed Sha’lân, Professor of Hebrew at the University of Rabat (Averroës, Plato’s Republic, Beirut, 1998).

[6] Hafadha, the term used by Averroës is Qur’ānic (6, 61). It concerns the guardian angels (protectors and recorders); Farabi also uses the term hurrās, “guardians” in a more “secular” way.

[to be continued]

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1 Response

  1. REDA BENSMAIA says:

    Grand merci Pierre et Charlotte d’avoir fait ce magnifique travail qui nous rappelle au bon souvenir de l’ami! Au moment où le ciel s’obscurçit de jour en jour dans les pays dits ‘arabes’, c’est bon réactiver les idées que ‘Abdelwahab avait tissées dans son livre! Ca comble un peu l’immense vide qu’il a laissé. Amitié, Réda

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