Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (6)


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(6th installment)


A Genealogy of Fundamentalism


The movement that tried to take power in the lifetime of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab came to nothing. The troops of the viceroy of Egypt’s, Mohammed ‘Ali (1769-1848), managed to chase the Wahhabites from the Hejaz after a violent campaign. (Jacques Berque has wondered how the Egyptian generals were able to take their canons all the way to Dar’iya, that cradle of Wahhabism, where in the seventies he had glimpsed the citadel of the Sauds still in ruins[1]). A new attempt toward the middle of the nineteenth century did not succeed any better. But the ideological seeds had been sown, and at the very beginning of the twentieth century the conditions were ripe for reviving the project. The tribe of Ibn Saud, forever linked to this puritanical ideology, reactivated the process; thirty years later it had imposed its hegemony on the greater part of the Arab peninsula, pacifying all the tribes, and created – in 1932 – the Saudi state, with Wahhabite ideology enshrined as official doctrine and buttressed by a zealous militia watching over its scrupulous application.

Without the wealth created by the exploitation of oil resources, the Saudi state and the ideology that underlies it would have remained marginal phenomena. Its domain would have been limited to an inhospitable terrain on which a minor sect would have survived, before either dying out or surviving in rough austerity, in accordance with the dire scarcity of desert living. But thanks to the power acquired through the petro-dollar, the Saudis were able to spread their simplistic ideology and prey on the civilization that the nations of Islam have created over more than a thousand very full years of history. Through the technological means of sound and image (which are the means of the Americanization of the world), they wounded Islam profoundly by abolishing or suspending its various creative dimensions.

Havoc has been wrought among local cultures who harbor the cult of the saints and its expression as festive theater, the live witness in this century of an ancient and totally Dionysian energy redeployed in the contours of Islamic faith. The ceremony of the trance has been able to survive into the heart of the twentieth century: I was its amazed witness during my childhood and I found it again in the eighties, at the moussem animated by the Issawa of Meknes to celebrate the Prophet’s birth-day. But censure is at work. Under the insidious influence of Wahhabism, political authority has decided to attenuate the intensity of ancient practice, to smooth out its rough edges, to control its creative urge.

Will such a sense of potlatch spending slowly wither away? What can we do to help preserve the ceremonial of the trance maintained for so long by the Issawa of Meknes? E.R. Dodds has unearthed surviving aspects in them that throw light on antique Maenadism or give an overview of the energy that leads to the loss of self, the exact sort that led Agave to fail to recognize her son Pentheus, to dismember him and to feed on his live flesh, as Euripides shows in the Bacchae[2].

We might object: “How can you mount a defense of those barbarous scenes, clearly the products of irrationality, when you have presented yourself so far as a partisan of reason?” My answer to such a charge: For a long time now I have made the separation of domains into an art of living, so as not be the victim of the reduction that the logic of reason imposes. In relation to politics, I use prudence, moderation, common sense, declare myself a down-to-earth realist and submit to the teachings of Aristotle, Voltaire and Kant. In short, I see myself as Apollonian in that area. But in poetry, in art, in the adventure of inner experience, I become a man of excess, of unboundedness, I become celestial, I navigate in the wake of Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille[3]. And I discover myself as Dionysian. In this paradoxical logic, love of the Enlightenment does not make me occult the darker face of man.

The aesthetic span immanent to the works and days has withdrawn from the daily life of the cities. The subtleties of the traditional doctrines have often exiled themselves, and taken refuge in native hearts and minds that have opted for withdrawal. Or these doctrines continue among Europeans who had converted to Islam (in the wake of René Guénon) by the means of Sufism and the ardor of its teachers. Modern times have permitted the Islamic subject to prosper by joining the global market place while remaining archaic at home. Are we not living the time of the Americanization of the world? Are we not undergoing one of the effects of the communitarianism and multiculturalism that are shaping the American cities? This is a question I am pondering – and which remains unanswered.

Should one see in the American-Arab alliance only geo-strategic considerations and a pure conjunction of interests?  Turning to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, I reread chapter two of the first book, the very title of which announces the archeological, genealogical method[4].  The return to an understanding of the past illuminates the present of the nations and their future. To understand “the great social enigma the United States presents to the world in our time,” Tocqueville returns indeed to the founding legislations, rereading the code of laws promulgated by the state of Connecticut in 1650. Focusing their attention on the penal laws, the legislators

strange to say, […] borrow their provisions from the text of Holy Writ. “Whosoever shall worship any other God than the Lord,” says the preamble of the Code, “shall surely be put to death.” This is followed by ten or twelve enactments of the same kind, copied verbatim from the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy –  Blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, and rape were punished with death; an outrage offered by a son to his parents was to be expiated by the same penalty.[6]

When I read such a text, I have the feeling that Wahhabite Saudi Arabia and Puritan America were held over the same baptismal fonts. At their origin, both states share a legal base rooted in religious reference; by recourse to Holy Writ they apply rough and archaic corporeal punishments in order to preserve the virtue of the social body. But it would be dishonest to stop with this astounding report, which seems to attribute surprising elective affinities to our two states; two pages later, Tocqueville adds:

In strict connection with this penal legislation, which bears such striking marks of a narrow, sectarian spirit and of those religious passions which had been warmed by persecution and were still fermenting among the people, a body of political laws is to be found which, though written two hundred years ago, is still in advance of the liberties of our age[7].

It is these political dispositions which impose a radical difference, one that moves us away from the perceived identity. But it is possible that this dialectic of the same and the different creates a misapprehension. In truth, and with a little help from the sin of naiveté, the religious reference in the Saudi political setup should not shock the American protagonist. Even if, as Tocqueville also writes, “in America religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of the divine laws leads man to civil freedom.”[8]

That is one more paradox that can only help fuel misunderstandings. Though religion has led to freedom and knowledge in America, religion filtered through the Wahhabite schematics can only uphold subjection and ignorance. Unconscious of his servitude and blindness, the Wahhabite sectarian walks hand in hand with the American; the two partners are equipped with foundational references that, superficially, resemble each other: such appearances can sustain the illusion of a natural alliance. On the stage of the global market place, the American takes the Wahhabite as an apprentice and initiates him into techniques that help him breathe in the rhythm of America, wherever in the world he may find himself. Through this association, the Wahhabite enriches himself materially and invests in the propagation of his faith. By acquiring wealth he honors his spiritual genealogy: didn’t Ibn Hanbal declare that to become rich is a divine duty? Didn’t Ibn Taymiyya insist that to put one’s wealth in the service of religion constitutes an imperative it would be reprehensible to avoid?

The Saudi-American idyll will be troubled only by the birth of that strange figure of the “Wahhabite’s Wahhabite.” This character will denounce the Wahhabite who has not been faithful to the doctrine and who has let himself be seduced by the other side of being American, the side which blemishes the puritanical vision of Islam. Bin Laden and the numerous Saudis who took part in the attacks of 9/11 perfectly illustrate the figure I have called the Wahhabite’s Wahhabite. The staging of such a doubling hollows out the person, opening up an aporia that confronts it with a more radical double; I adopt it here by analogy with an episode invented by the Sufi Qushayri (986-1072) when he comments on one of the verses relating to the temptation of Adam in the Garden: 

After having succumbed to the suggestions of the Demon, Adam, furious that his purity had thus been soiled, says to him: “You damned one, you have tempted me and I have acted on your instigations.” To which the Demon answers: “Certainly, Adam, I was the demon who inspired you; but can you say who is my demon?[9]

[1] Jacques Berque, Langages arabes du présent, p. 124, Gallimard, Paris, 1974.

[2]E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Beacon Press, Boston 1957.pp. 270-278.For the scenes of sparagmos (the absorption of live animal or human flesh) as they are shown in Euripides’ play, cf. The Bacchae of Euripides, translated By C.K. Williams, The Noonday Press, New York, 1990, especially verse 139, p. 14, concerning the consumption of Theban cattle, and verses 1239ff concerning the dismemberment of Pentheus. 

[3] Abdelwahab Meddeb, “Art et transe,” pp. 72-79, Esprit, no. 220, 1996.

[4] “On the Point of Departure and its Importance for the Future of the Anglo-Americans,” in: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. ed. and with an introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000)

[5] The reader will notice that it is exactly that genealogical approach that the book underhand tries to honor.

[6] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/1_ch02.htm

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Qur’an, 6:19; and Al-Quashyri, Lat’aif al-Isharat, ed. I. Al-Basyuni (Cairo, 1981), 1:524.


As I have already mentioned in this book, Islam knew great things very early on, but the process it initiated was interrupted. The reader has the right to demand the reasons for this interruption. Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain the drying up of the creative wellsprings. There was first of all the progressive loss of international commerce. Islam had established its greatness at the very moment when Europe had fallen into lethargy (eighth to eleventh century). Now, one of the effects of the Crusades – which lasted two centuries, from 1099 to 1270 – turns out to have been the reestablished dynamism of the Italian city-states (Genoa, Pisa, Venice) which broke the Islamic monopoly on Mediterranean commerce [1].

The mathematician and historian of science Ahmed Djebbar asked a fundamental question about Islam;s interrupted development: “Why was this brilliant civilization… unable to create at its core the conditions that should have prepared the advent of modern science, with its corollaries, that is to say, the scientific and technological revolution, followed by the industrial revolution?” [2] Instead of an answer, Djebbar proposed a synthesis of what has been said about it by researchers (notably C. Cahen and M. Lombard). To begin with, there is the effect of the internal crises that befell Islam following the Christian and Mongol offensives (twelfth and thirteenth centuries). Then there is the weakening of the social relationships in artisanal production. Finally, there was the fact that monopolies over certain resources changed hands – iron, wood and gold, for example – which precipitated the transfer of money from Islam to Europe. In such ways Islam lost control of international commerce, a control over which it never regained mastery. The new ship-owners opened up new horizons (through the discovery of America) and changed the trade routes (by way of new maritime maps that open access to Asia and Oceania by circumventing the territories of Islam).

Régis Morelon, the historian of Arab astronomy, in a discussion with me evoked the quantitative thesis developed by the Reverend Alvès de Sa, a most knowledgeable Brazilian who spent much time in the Dominican Institute for Arab Studies in Cairo. Alvès de Sa estimates that the great civilizations crumble after about five centuries. This periodization is applicable to Islam, whose classic phase can be said to have lasted from 750 to 1250. After this time, the culture’s expressions could possibly have continued its classic phase for another five hundred years, except that Islam was not be in possession of the means that would have reconciled it with the rupture of the Enlightenment and the technological and industrial revolution.

These explanations (and others as well) seem plausible, yet some part of the enigma remains. Is there in history some intervention that lies beyond human will? Could that be the part of providence? Or that of the Spirit, enigmatic in the ways in which it moves among the peoples, and visits nations and languages? Or is it possible to adapt to history the metaphor of the unconscious, to determine there those virtualities that escape reason and go beyond the panoply of causes that explain the rise and decline of civilizations? As far as Islam is concerned, the lightning expansion of its beginnings remains marked with its own enigmatic aspect just as much as its ineluctable decline.

What remains to be explained, or at least mentioned, is the series of defeats the Islamic world experienced when it tried to respond to the dawn of the twentieth century. At that moment Islam grew aware that a revolution whose terms escaped it was in the process of transforming the surface of the earth and the manner in which humans inhabit this earth. It is important to examine these failures, as from their smoldering ruins grows the ressentiment that excites and motivates the fundamentalist mind-set.

Let’s start with the failure of the modernization attempted in the nineteenth century. In this regard the Egyptian situation remains exemplary, a failure warranting further examination, because it carries in it the failure of the Europeanization that had grazed Arab thinking, the context of which I sketched above when I discussed women’s liberation. How are we to explain the failure of the modernization undertaken by Mohammed Ali during a reign of more than forty years (1805-1848)? We cannot avoid the feeling that there was nothing lacking in his politics: the constitution of a centralized state; the creation of monopolies of production; a modern army; a broadening of the national territory to the dimensions of empire (through expanding its frontier in he direction of Syria and Palestine, Arabia, and the upper Nile); the development of technicians and translators; the sending of students to Europe; the creation of pedagogical structures, of medical institutions, of factories and plants for the processing of raw materials; the introduction of industrial crops (cotton, sugar cane); the invention of an architectural style, a politics of great public works aiming at modernizing the infrastructure; the building of roads, canals, dams. This project lacked nothing except perhaps the method that would have connected the hierarchy of priorities and the necessary rigor in its execution.

During friendly exchanges with Roshdi Rashed, initiator and editor of the formidable History of Arab Sciences, I learned from this epistemologist and historian of mathematics that the principal reason for the Egyptian failure lies in the obstacles that the Europeans placed in the path of Mohammed Ali. In a time of European expansion, it was necessary to prevent by all means possible the emergence, so close to the old continent, of a new regional power that could become a rival on an already aggressive market protected by force of arms.

When I questioned the same friend about the later case of the Japanese success initiated in 1868 by the Meiji era, he reacts by affirming that the Japanese modernization happened without the Europeans being aware of it, or rather happened beyond their sphere of influence: the land of the Rising Sun would thus have benefited from its remoteness.[3] What’s more, although Japan was determined to modernize and westernize, it also kept intact its traditional structures of authority, as much in the circulation of decisions through the social hierarchy as in the know-how of its artisans and manual workers, who had kept the spirit of high precision that kept watch over their art. Japan’s industrialization was triggered by the initiative of the great old families with the cooperation of scrupulous trade associations.

In Egypt, however, these two conditions were absent: Mohammed Ali was a foreigner who had undone a social body that lacked historical roots (he had, for example, acquired the monopoly of agricultural lands). More importantly, the arts and crafts were in a state of decay: the ethic interiorized by the manual worker was no longer focused on corncern for well-wrought professional work. At the end of the eighteenth century the editors of The Description of Egypt already took note of the deterioration of artisanship and the rudimentary state of technology. They were impressed by the gap that separated contemporary copper work from an object such as a door of the Mameluk period, fashioned in the same matter. In the manual arts, the loss was incommensurable: what a difference between the perfect beauty of the works inherited from the fourteenth century and the neglected condition in both matter and form of the objects exchanged toward the end of the eighteenth! From one period to the next, the Egyptian hand-made object had already passed from an age of precision to one of slipshod work, a situation that did not conduce to the imitation of the products of engineering proposed by the industrial age, which demands high precision within a process that needs complex coordination between distinct complimentary tasks.

The only positive achievement that the reign of Mohammed Ali and his successors managed to leave to posterity are some of the political, economic and social rudiments that eventually permitted Egypt to constitute itself as a nation-state. Yet, having brought the people neither democratic freedom nor well-being, that development in its turn will experience a failure that will add to the previous failures. We will come back to this.

Let us look at a writer, sheikh Rifa’a Rafe’ Tahtawi (1801-1873) who is representative of his era [4]. He is an Azharian who lived in Paris for five years, acting as the imam of the students sent there by Mohammed Ali. Upon returning to Cairo, he headed the bureau of translation and he himself translated some twenty volumes from French. He clearly showed liberalism in his handling of juridical and political authorities, though they remained Islamic. He supported a sovereign who honored justice in the exercise of absolute power; he felt true empathy for the “protected minorities” (the Jewish and Christian dhimmis). He legitimized borrowings from foreign juridical systems, and recommended their integration into the body of the Sharia if general welfare demands it. This frame of mind was invaluable for the evolution of law.

The sheikh, however, remained pre-modern in his approach to European culture. He did not succeed in avoiding confusion and clearly prioritizing his documents, unable to distinguish between those works that were foundational and those that were adventitious. He was unable to discriminate between the different levels of texts: he privileged school manuals, and did not know that these were — like encyclopedias — an ersatz for science. In short, he gave the impression of being in a hurry, and of believing that a compendium is enough to master this or that art or technique. It is clear that he could not imagine the hard labor demanded by the incessant to-and-fro between fundamental research and applied science. [5]

With this remark I want to make explicit a symptom of the failure of Europeanization, even in its later phases, with authors we have already met, such as Abd ar-Raziq (in whom we noted a superficial knowledge of Hobbes and Locke through the use of school textbooks). Even if one invokes Taha Husayn, the most prestigious of “Occidentalists,” one may judge that to the very end of his career (in the seventies) he remained, as historian of literature, the pupil if not the disciple of Gustave Lanson, and as chronicler and critic, at best an imitator of Sainte-Beuve. He revealed himself as being a follower of older models and not as initiator opening a path in solitude. He never became an innovator who participates in the adventure of his contemporaries and works for the conquest of new terrain that would be hospitable to thought and word.

[1] But we must remember that the Crusades were preceded by the loss of Sicily (1063) and the fall of Toledo (1085).

[2] Djebbar, Une histoire de la science arabe, 56.

[3] In Japnase, the character Mei means “clear,” and Ji means “reign.” The two characters together give the image of a “clear reign,” or in French, “gouvernement éclairé,” an enlightened government. The victory of Japan over Russia in 1905 was perceived in Egypt as the sign that an oriental country can succeed in the double perspective corresponding to the program of the nationalists: to fight against the domination of Europe while at the same time adopting its civilization. For an Egyptian nationalist’s view on renovated Japan, see Mustafa Kamil book ash-Shams al-Mushriqa (“The sun that illuminates”) (Cairo,1906).

[4]  Translator’s note: see here & here

[5] Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi gives the eclectic list of his readings during his Parisian sojourn in his book translated as L’or de Paris, trans. Anouar Louca ( Paris, Sindbad, 1988) p. 224 ff; also available in English as An Imam in Paris : al-Tahtawi’s visit to France (1826-31) / Rifa‘ah al-Tahtawi;  translated byDaniel L Newman (London : Saqi, 2002). In his introduction the French translator recalls that al-Tahtawi’s assiduously read the Aperçu historique sur les moeurs et coutumes des nations, whose author was a certain Depping. It is in fact an installment of the Encyclopédie portative ou Résumé universel des sciences, des letters et des arts. One can see toward what illusory knowledge such reading can lead; how can such minor, concise, schematic publications lead him “by the shortest roads to the discovery of unsuspected societies,” as his translator claims?

[6] Ali ‘Abd ar-Raziq, Al-Islam wa uçul al-Hukm.

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