Malady of Islam (Abdelwahhab Meddeb)


The Fault Lies Not in Our Stars, But in OurselvesӔ: Reading Modern Islamic Fundamentalism Against the Classical Arab Tradition

Abdelwahhab Meddeb, The Malady of Islam, Translated from the French by Pierre Joris and Ann Reid, Basic Books, 2003
Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, Arabic-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique, Translated from the French by Aziz Abbassi, University of Texas Press, 1999

Edward Said has had a deep impact on the manner in which Arabs have been portrayed in the West.  In his many works he has sought to correct distortions and misperceptions of the Arab world that have been produced by what he has called ѓOrientalism, a term that originally denoted those Europeans who examined Islam from the perspective of the Enlightenment and its ideals, some of which were incorporated into the various colonialist adventures undertaken in the 18th century.

In Orientalism Said worked his level best to see the Orientalist phenomenon as a well-organized academic fraternity that conspired to racially skew the grid of civilization in favor of an amorphous West at the expense of an idealized and demonized East.

In a 1993 essay, ԓThe Other Arab Muslims, collected in his book The Politics of Dispossession and very much in keeping with his understanding of the issue, Said stated the following regarding the growth and influence of the Islamic fundamentalists:

In every Arab country, education, which is now undertaken on a virtually universal scale, is almost completely secular and national.  IԒve lectured in numerous Arab universities over the past several years, and even though you do notice more veils and head coverings, you also have to take stock of the sheer weight of scientific, social, historical, and aesthetic knowledge imparted to young Muslims, even as in other ways they are exposed to their religion.  If we add to learned or school knowledge all of the myriad components of everyday life that I mentioned earlier, we will have to acknowledge that ongoing life in the Arab world is itself a dense secular information system that deters and inhibits the alternative, otherworldly views provided by the theocrats.

It is truly unfortunate that such a statement has now been proven to be false.  And not only is the passage utterly and completely incorrect in socio-political terms, the passages logical corollary, that the Arab-Muslim world has absorbed all that Modernity has demanded of it, has given a good deal of ammunition to the modern-day Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes who can go back to such statements Җ which now seem to be so much pie in the sky and assert that the entire edifice of cultural critique that Said has articulated is, in the words of Martin Kramer, that of ֓castles built on sand.

In order to understand a bit of the complexity inherent in this polemic I think it would be helpful to summon the voice of the great Arab historian Philip Hitti who discusses the issue of Arab modernization at the very end of his classic History of the Arabs:

The Arab peoples at this time presented a seeming paradox: resisting with one arm European advances while with the other receiving and adopting European ideas and techniques.  The new acquisitions from Europe were utilized in the fight against Europeans.  Of the numberless novel ideas imported from the West, nationalism and political democracy were undoubtedly the most powerful.  The espousal of nationalism encouraged the principle of self-determination and both led to the struggle for independence from foreign rule.  Meantime the new ideology from the West, with its stress on secular and material values and the importance that it attaches to ethnic limitations and geographic boundaries, ran counter to the most cherished traditions of Islam, with its concepts of religious universality, political theocracy and exclusive sovereignty.  Pan-Islam rather than Pan-Arabism would be the ideal toward which Moslems should strive.

By juxtaposing these two citations, I wish to raise the massive perceptual gulf that divides them: Said elides the issue of religion; he himself, as is well known, is an avowed secularist and tends to underplay the role of religion in the Arab world.  Hitti, after having analyzed Arab history in the hundreds of pages of his masterwork, takes far more seriously the paradoxical and contradictory impulses at the very heart of the modern Arab condition.

As Said has continually pointed out, such a distinction is not merely a theoretical proposition.  Secular politics and religious ideology in the Arab world are intertwined, and the statements of Hitti, once contextualized into a Western political framework, a framework that seeks both to analyze and dominate the Arab world from the standpoint of an internationalist power politics, lead to very real decisions made at 10 Downing Street, the Kremlin, the White House and other places of such decision-making.

Hitti, himself trained within and very much a part of what Said has called the ԓOrientalist school, saw Arab history, contrary to the Saidian paradigm, in cyclical terms with ebbs and flows and moments of enlightened inspiration and other moments of decadence and internal decay.  As Walid Khalidi states in his introduction to the recently-published edition of the book:

The History never flinches from a ԓwarts and all approach and is clear-eyed about sectarian schisms and other internal causes of decline and decay.

Hitti did not write at a time of political correctness and his seminal book is informed by a bias that was characteristic of the Orientalist school.  This bias, of course, was that the Arab world, from the 15th century on, had sunk into a toxic morass that caused it to lag behind the West.  This decay was brought on by internal Arab weakness and decadence after the glorious period of the High Middle Ages that had seen the nascent Arabo-Islamic civilization establish new ways of developing technology and ideas; a historical phenomenon that led Arab civilization in those centuries to triumph over the West.


SaidԒs writing, buttressed by the scholarship of his many followers, has tried to minimize the decay and lay the failures of Arab civilization, not at the hands of the Arabs themselves, but at the doorstep of the West in its violent attempt to subdue and colonize the Arab world.  Hitti would most certainly have disagreed with this shift in balance and his books formal structure indicates how he saw the situation. 

In a book of some 750 pages, Hitti devotes over 600 of them to the period starting with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the 6th century until the close of the last Arab dynasty, the Mamluks, in the 15th century.  Hitti sees the period that ushers in Ottoman Turkish rule as relatively insignificant.  He devotes less than 50 pages of the book to it.  Arab Modernity is dispensed with at the bookҒs close in less than 5 pages.

In discussing the Ottoman period Hitti states the following:

Shortly after the death of Sulayman the empire started on its downward course, a course that was both long and tortuous.  The failure of the second attempt on Vienna in 1683 may be considered as marking the beginning of the end; Turkeys expansion in Europe made no further progress.  After that the problem for the Turks became how to hold what they got rather than to get more; the role of the armed forces was no more one of offense but of defense.  To the internal forces of corruption and decay were added external forces in the eighteenth century when France, England, Austria and eventually Russia started their quest for ғspheres of influence and began to cast covetous eyes on some possession of the ԓsick man of Europe.

So to start off our discussion of the state of the Arab-Muslim world in the wake of the September 11th attacks, a traumatic and troubling paradigm shift, and a new and persuasive manifestation of the absolute failure of the smooth and successful adoption of the Western paradigm in the Arab world at a mass level, we cite the opening passage from The Malady of Islam, the new and brilliant book by the North African scholar Abdelwahhab Meddeb who currently lives, as so many Arab humanist intellectuals do, in Western exile:

The spectacular attack of September 11, which struck the heart of the United States, is a crime.  A crime committed by Islamists.  It constitutes the extreme point of a series of terrorist acts that have followed an exponential curve whose beginning I trace back to 1979, the year that saw the triumph of Khomeini in Iran and the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops.  These two events had considerable effects that reinforced the fundamentalist movements and helped the dissemination of their ideology.

Rather than seeking the origins of the 9/11 attacks in the Orientalist paradigm, where the West is blamed for the internal ruptures of Arab society, Meddeb, who lives in Paris, does a mea culpa and sets out to write a book that will serve as a very deep yet measured response to the passage we earlier quoted from Edward Said.

 

Meddeb refuses to elide the role and power of the Islamic faith and how that faith has become a counter-ideology to the reformist movements in the Middle East that held sway during the period that the late historian Albert Hourani termed the ԓliberal age.

Meddeb wishes to turn back to Islam and see what is in it that has led to the tragedies that now bring the West and the Arabs to the strife we now suffer:

In order to understand the form this ideology takes, we have to go far back in time.  We have to recognize exactly where the letter Ԗ the Quran and its tradition Җ is predisposed to a fundamentalist reading.  We have to rediscover the exegetical and theological tradition in order to unravel the way this letter enables and encourages those who retain from its meaning only what summons them to war.  We have to discover where the tradition resists, where we must allow a new interpretation that did not express itself where such a tradition grew.

Meddeb thus comes around to the main idea which has been articulated in the very pages of this newsletter and has been at the very core of my own thinking about Judaism in the modern age: How does the ancient Law apply to modern times and how does the development of the Letter of that Law impact the manner in which religious people see themselves in relation to the Other.

In studying this issue I have found that within the evolution of Jewish thinking in the very figure of Moses Maimonides, a central personage in the development of a Judeo-Arabic culture, we can find a paradigm shift that has been able to construct and preserve a vitalist Judaism, a Judaism that is able to withstand the shattering and corrosive effects of the Modernity that is now our ruling paradigm. 

The Rights of ManӔ paradigm as expressed by Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant has been the yardstick by which we now understand who we are as people.  This political paradigm has structured modern nation-states and forced the hand of those traditionalists who would see in Voltaire the emergence of a rational force that would obviate the myths and processes of traditional culture. 

In fact, we may see that the traditionalists attempt to resist this Voltairian reading of society with their own absolutism.  Meddeb describes this fact in a Voltairian modality:

One of the reasons for the spread of fanaticism is the survival of superstition among the people, and the best way to heal this mortal illness is to subject the greatest possible number to the use of reason.

This is in fact a very precise articulation of the Modern viewpoint: The rise of Rationalism, a previously elite phenomenon within Christian Europe, a movement that was first articulated in the texts of the philosophes of the 17th century, most prominently by Rene Descartes, was now served up to the masses in the form of the French Revolution, a political development that sought to destroy the feudal tyrannies of the traditional past with the development of a universal canon of human rights equitably distributed to all citizens. 

Voltaire, in the tradition of his progenitor Spinoza, was a vehement critic of religion and its ideological substrate.  It would then seem logical that the forces of religion, mired in the morass of political stasis that had gripped the waning Medieval universe (one could include not merely the King of France but also the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul), would assert their status and fight back.

So in the 18th century we witness the development of new religious fundamentalisms.  Meddeb first presents this trend in generic terms:

The Quranic letter, if submitted to a literal reading, can resonate in the space delimited by the fundamentalist project: It can respond to one who wants to make it talk within the narrowness of those confines; for it to escape, it needs to be invested with the desire of the interpreter.  Rather than distinguishing a good Islam from a bad Islam, it would be better for Islam to open itself up to debate and discussion, to rediscover the plurality of opinions, to set up a space for disagreement and difference, to accept that a neighbor has the freedom to think differently.  Better for Islam if intellectual debate rediscovers its rights and adapts itself to the conditions polyphony offers.  May the deviations multiply and unanimism cease; may the stable substance of One disseminate itself in a shower of ungraspable atoms.

Such an ideological understanding brings to mind the revolutionary cultural ideas articulated by the great Arab modernist Adonis (Ali Ahmed SaҒid) in his seminal lectures on Arab thought at the College de France in 1984 and published in English in 1990 under the title An Introduction to Arab Poetics:

If Arab poetic modernity is partly based on the liberation of what has been suppressed that is, on the expression of desire ֖ and on everything that undermines the existing repressive norms and values, and transcends them, then ideological concepts like authenticity,ђ roots,ђ heritage,ђ renaissanceђ and identityђ take on different meanings.  Traditional notions of the continuous, the coherent, the one, the complete, are replaced by the interrupted, the plural, the incomplete, implying that the relationship between words and things is constantly changing: that is, there is always a gap between them which saying or writing the words cannot fill.  This unbridgeable gap means that the questions What is knowledge?ђ, What is truth?ђ, What is poetry?ђ remain open, knowing that knowledge is never complete and that truth is a continuing search. 

It is the job of the critic to find within the literary and religious tradition - and in the case of the Arab tradition, al-Turath, these two elements are most passionately intertwined - a way in which to read in a freshly innovative and creative manner the texts of the past in order to have those texts speak in a dialectical fashion to the needs of the present.

For this reason, Meddeb goes back, as does Adonis, to the very foundational moments of Islamic history to discover what made that tradition so potent and so powerful.  In an age when Europe relinquished the science and philosophy of its Greco-Roman past, Arab philosophers and scientists scurried about to preserve, translate and transmit this accumulated wisdom. 

Though but little-known to modern Westerners, this first Arab renaissance was created by a group called the Muatazila.  This is how Meddeb describes them:

The very beginning of the ninth century saw the birth of a rationalist movement animated by those whom we call the MuҒatazilites.  These thinkers tried to disrupt two then-dominant ideas: They criticized the Islamic dogma that states that the Quran (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 QurҒan is of Divine origin, but that the concretization of the Holy Writ is an earthly language that can only be created by God at the moment of its revelation.  These sectarians think that those who claim that the Quran is uncreated are installing an Islamic equivalent of the Christian sense of incarnation: The QurҒanic 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 Muatazilites removed God from the world; they gave him back to his unknowability, they neutralized him in a transcendence that liberated humankind from predestination and made humans alone responsible for their actions.

It would not be incorrect to see such ideas as linked to the Maimonidean spirit in Jewish thought. 

In his analysis of the development of this trend in Judeo-Arabic thought in his masterwork Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy the legendary Harvard scholar Harry Wolfson remarks:

This conception of internal unity [Arabic, tawhid] or absolute simplicity was not derived by the Arabic-speaking Jews directly from Scripture, for the unity of God in Scripture meant only numerical unity.  It was the MuҒatazilite stressing of internal unity or absolute simplicity that led them to interpret scriptural unity in that sense.  Still, though indirectly they were led to this interpretation of the scriptural unity of God by the influence of the Muatazilites, ultimately they were following a principle which had originated in Judaism.

The concurrent development of this notion of tawhid among Muslims and Jews permitted the development of humanism and science in both religions.  Though we know that there was resistance to these developments in some conservative and reactionary circles, the high cultural production of both Jews and Arabs in the period of the High Middle Ages (roughly 750-1250) leads to the later movements of the Renaissance and Enlightenment whose major thinkers and writers base their views on the ideas, texts and trends that were developed in the Golden Age of Islam.

Meddeb discusses the rise of Occidental thought in the modern period within this medieval Arab context:

And this eighteenth century, founded essentially on the broadening of the concept of freedom, 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 eighteenth-century Europe 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 Treatise by Averroes (1126-1198).  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-KindiҒs reflection on the relation between religion and philosophy, theology and technique.  He perceives philosophy as the logical technique that underlies his method.  In Arabic, Averroes calls this ela, the instrument, the organon, the instrument of thought as inherited from Aristotle, the aim of which is to think the inexhaustible articulation of language on the world.

It is the decisive figure of Ibn Rushd, Averroes in Western parlance, which grounds the movement of Arab philosophy and anchors its ideas into a workable, fluid and synthetic context. 

And here we must bring to light the brilliant recent study of the Arabic philosophical tradition by the Moroccan scholar Mohammed Abed al-Jabri in his work Arabic-Islamic Philosophy which intersects with the thoughts of both Adonis and Meddeb.  In al-Jabriђs view:

Averroess philosophical discourse is therefore one of a critical and realistic rationalism.  On the cognitive level, Averroes frees himself from the hegemony of the epistemological system sanctioned mostly by the HarranҒs School in the East and by the neo-Platonists in general.  Moreover, on the ideological level he frees himself from the socio-historical circumstances that had generated Farabis dream of the ғvirtuous city and AvicennaԒs Eastern philosophy.Ӕ  This helped him form a new opinion of the relationship between religion and philosophy, an opinion based on a realistic rationalism that makes it possible to protect the identity and independence of each of these two fields and to make them converge towards the same goal: the search for the truth.

In the course of his short but penetrating essay on the Arabo-Islamic philosophical system al-Jabri finds the root causes of the malignant effects of traditional Islamic philosophy as articulated by Ibn Rushds bete noire, al-Ghazali:

In his rejections of GhazaliҒs objections to philosophers Averroes shows that he [Ghazali] did not know the philosophers ideas through their respective texts, but that he had limited himself to studying them through their presentation by Avicenna, ғhence his incompetence in the matter, for the philosophersԒ theses are based upon principles that must be discussed first.  If we subsequently accept these principles and we recognize the conclusions they claim to have reached through demonstration, none of them is valid any longer.Ӕ  Hence the futility of Ghazalis objections.  Contrary to his claim and according to Averroes, philosophers do not contest religion, ғfor it is out of the question, for the philosophers who believe in divinity, to discuss and polemicize against the principles of religion.  Indeed, since all sciences (the theoretical ones) are based upon proper principles and since he who tackles them must accept them without questioning their veracity, the same holds true and all the more so ֖ for the practical science that is religion.  But Ghazali does not respect this process since her rejects philosophers without ԓmentioning the motives that had pushed them to hold their opinions, something that would have allowed the reader to compare those motives to the discourse to which Ghazali himself resorted in sullying the philosophers ideas.Ҕ  This is how most of this manӒs arguments against philosophers are nothing but doubts that were cast when he contrasted some of their assertions to others, and this manner of rejecting is ԓthe most inconsistent and the lowest that can be, because by no means does it guarantee a consent based on demonstration or persuasion.

The polemic between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd, according to al-Jabri, is the paradigm that continues to animate polemics in the modern Arab cultural universe.  It is here that al-Jabri and MeddebԒs views coalesce into a single entity.  The two men point to the controversies over Averroes within the traditional elements of Islamic thought, especially as its religious philosophy has developed though the ages. 

This debate is over the correct role of the mind in philosophical terms.  Averroes asserts the primacy of the rational mind while al-Ghazali, following the lead of Avicenna in his neo-Platonic mysticism, rejects the ultimate power of the mind to determine reality.  Al-Ghazali thus retreats to an Asharite theology which holds that natural events such as the incineration of a piece of cotton by a flame is not a necessary action; there is no rational causation inherent in such an action.  It is God alone that determines everything that happens.  Thus, al-Ghazali rejects free will and rational causality serving to keep man chained to a hapless existence over which he has no logical control.

The problematic is presented by al-Jabri in the following manner:

The fundamentalist reading of tradition is an ahistorical one and can only provide one type of understanding of tradition: an understanding of tradition that is locked inside tradition and absorbed by a tradition that it cannot in return include: it is tradition repeating itself.  The reading of the religious fundamentalists proceeds from a religious conception of history.  This conception treats history as a moment that is expanded into the present, a time that is stretched inside the affective life, a witness to the perpetual struggle and the eternal suffering endured for the sake of affirming oneҒs identity.  And since we are told that it is both faith and religious conviction that define this identity, fundamentalism posits the spiritual factor as the sole engine of history.  As for the other factors, they are considered as secondary, depending upon the spiritual, or disfiguring the trueӔ course of history.

This spiritualist, anti-rational sense of religion is, of course, shared by Jewish and Christian fundamentalists as well.  Al-Jabri finds the Averroistic spirit that might counter this fundamentalism rediscovered in the seminal work of Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, his introduction to history, which is an effort to take Averroistic philosophy and apply it to an anthropocentric version of history (later taken up by Giambattista Vico in the 18th century) that would effectively rationalizeӔ the study of human sciences:

Accordingly, the priority task of the historian who wants to make history scientific is to develop an exact criterionӔ according to which he would evaluate the reported accounts and distinguish those that are in compliance and those that are not.  This criterion lies in the knowledge of the natural properties of civilization.Ӕ  Indeed, civilization (ӑumran), in its various conditions, possesses natural properties (tabaiҒ), to which accounts must be brought back and in terms of which the related traditions (riwayat) and the words of the ancient ones (athar) must be appreciated.  We would not therefore be able to put history into reason, i.e., to submit to rational consistency the representation of reality which is offered by the accounts, unless we ԓknew the natural properties of civilization.

In these passages from al-Jabri and Ibn Khaldun it is quite clear that there is a positivist strain in the Arabo-Islamic tradition that seeks to cut through the veil of irrationality, ignorance and superstition that Meddeb has already brought to light through his analysis of Voltaire.  But this veil has become, as we shall now see, ubiquitous throughout the Arab-Muslim world.

Meddeb traces this geneaology back to the historical figures of Ibn Hanbal (780-ca. 855) and Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1328), two theologians that fought the developments of the MuԒatazila and who sought to promote a version of Islamic thought that would reject in toto the Greco-Roman antecedents.  This rejection was a rejection of hermeneutics (Arabic, tawil), the ability to free the text of a single unwavering meaning:

Gifted and with exceptional intelligence and energy, Ibn Taymiyya spent his life lying in wait for any intrusion that might mar the smooth surface of the letter, and he set himself the task of polishing that letter by ridding it of the variety of meanings that decorated its profile.  He indiscriminately hunted down the effects of philosophy upon theological discourse and its contaminations by Greek thought; he fustigated any number of esoteric sects, decreeing them heretical by virtue of the privilege they accorded to hermeneutics; he denounced the theory and the experience of the uniqueness of Being as preached and lived by the Sufis, whom he considered far more dangerous than the Christians for a belief based on absolute monotheism.

The roots of 9/11 and of al-QaҒida lie in the transmission of Hanbali and Taymiyyite ideas in the seminal modern figure of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab (1703-1792).  Although Wahhabism was itself a failure at its inception, when the rational and scientific elements of Islam were still functional, it has taken on a very significant role in the development of modern Islam.  Thus it is very important to understand what Ibn Abdel Wahhab said.  His ideas have taken their exclusive shape in the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia where this Hanbali-Taymiyyite-Wahhabi creed has been developed. 

In a comparison of Puritan America and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, Meddeb discovers some disconcerting coincidences:

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 marketplace, the American takes the Wahhabite as an apprentice and initiates him into the 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 geneaology.

The confluence of the ideas presented by al-Jabri and Meddeb traces for us the lines that have been informing the latest incarnation of Islamic civilization.  There was the Averroistic tradition that once led Muslims to reform and rationalism, but there now is the Hanbalite theology that has led to the decay and destruction that has been exemplified by the actions of 9/11.

The successful development of the fundamentalist line has occurred because of dual-pronged movement that has affected both the Western and Islamic worlds.  The Averroistic philosophical tradition was absorbed in the West during the key periods of the Renaissance and Enlightenment while it was in retreat throughout the Arab-Muslim world.  European philosophers of the early Modern period took from Averroistic tradition what they needed to develop their rational capacity and create the technological marvels of modern science. 

It is thus quite clear that it was the Arab renaissance of the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in its Andalusian variant, which led to the advances in Western thought leading to Modernity. 

In his discussion of the emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), well known for his adoption of Arab culture and political ideas, Meddeb points out:

It was as if Frederick had realized that Islam had truly managed to resolve the problem of the relationship between the two powers, the temporal and the spiritual.  By concluding that the role of the caliph, descendant of the Prophet, was limited to the spiritual function, he is in agreement with what we have learned from the encounter in Mecca of the Imam Zayn al-Abidin and the Umayyad Prince Hisham.  It is as if the potentiality we discern in this tale from the beginning of the eighth century had become the reality of the thirteenth century.  Before his own eyes, Frederick saw the realization of his idea: the subjugation of the spiritual to the temporal order Frederick, the excommunicated emperor, ultimately staged his self-coronation at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, placing on his own head the holy crown of JerusalemŅ  The ceremony took place on Sunday, March 18, 1229, and on that day Frederick restored the principle of a kingship that connects directly with God without mediation by the Church.  Frederick brought Western monarchyӔ back from the East

This fundamental shift in Western culture was brought about, as Meddeb insists, by the Western absorption and adoption of the Arabo-Islamic idea(l)s.  The West continued to drink at the well of the East until it had completely mastered the system and was able, by the 16th century and the advent of a new philosophical and scientific age, to surpass what was, according to Philip Hitti, an Arab world in degeneration.

It was during this crucial time that Islam turned back in on itself and its precious Averroistic-Khaldunian tradition.  The most precise formulation of this idea can be found in Amin MaaloufŒs seminal study The Crusades Through Arab Eyes in a passage that I have quoted many times:

Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism.  Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself.  It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile attitudes that grew steadily worse as world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued.  Henceforth progress was the embodiment of ֑the other.  Modernism became alien. 

Wahhabism is the ultimate embodiment of this sense of resentment.

But before Wahhabism was able to take root in the 20th century, modernizing movements took place in the Arab world.  Figures such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and his disciple Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) began to rethink some of the foundational assumptions that had accrued within the Islamic body over the centuries and found that change would have to come.  The question is how exactly would change take place, in what form would Islam change?

Meddeb addresses these questions in the following manner:

In politics they [al-Afghani and Abduh] were opposed to European hegemony (as manifested through colonial domination).  But when it came to matters of the mind, they were completely fascinated by Western culture: By invoking the political categories inherited from the Age of Enlightenment (parliamentarianism, freedom of expression), they led the fight against local despotism.  Their aim for civilization was to rediscover greatness by reconciling Western ideas with fidelity to tradition.  In their theology, they sought to find in the QurҒan even the elements of rational religion of the kind theorized by, for instance, the positivist Auguste Comte.

But with the development of a new intransigent militancy, particularly of figures such as Abu Ala al-Mawdudi in Pakistan (1903-1979) and his Egyptian disciple Sayyid Qutb (1929-1966), a counterforce with the intent to destroy the neo-liberalisms of Abduh began to take shape.

Here we can certainly identify the effects of a corrosive Imperialism upon the future of progressive reform in the Arab-Muslim world.  The political reformers, exemplified by the paradigmatic figure of Saad Zaghlul, the leader of the liberal-nationalist Wafd party in Egypt (and a hero in Naguib MahfouzҒs paean to the liberal moment,Ӕ his classic Cairo Trilogy), were beaten down by the military might of the Western powers. 

The failure of the liberals permitted and this is a detail that we have seen time and again in the region ֖ the development of a radical underground usually religious in orientation ֖ that would try to make good on the unfulfilled promises of the liberals; but these religious radicals used the lexicon that had been developed from the Hanabalite traditions as filtered through Wahhabism.

The failure after decolonization to create just societies in many of the new Arab states coupled with the ubiquitous and ominous presence of the state of Israel, led to a further exacerbation of this new phenomenon.  Disdaining the secularism of figures such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Michel Aflaqs BaҒath party in Syria, along with other secular modernizing movements in North Africa, entities such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia used their organizations religious and economic ֖ to develop a latent Islamic fundamentalism that sought to cut its ties with both the rich and varied Islamic past, but also with the political tyranny of the West and its secular Arab epigones.

The flashpoint in this history was the developments of 1979, as Meddeb has already pointed out to us.  With the waning of the Soviet empire, the US sought to promote the Islamic fundamentalist groups in the form of the mujahadeen of Afghanistan that served to seal the Soviet fate.  The military empowerment of fundamentalists such as Usama Bin Laden, coupled with the emergence of Shia radicalism in Iran and Palestinian religious radicalism in Lebanon and the West Bank (and the emergence of Hamas in the 1980Ғs does indeed parallel the US role with the mujahadeen in Afghanistan it was the Israeli Mossad that put forward the idea that the Islamist Hamas could undermine the secular-nationalist PLO thus ridding Israel of its main antagonist; little did the US or Israel know what creating and arming Hamas and those who would become al-Qa֒ida would do to their own national interests), has led to a concretization of the fundamentalist Islam that had been tracing its way throughout the Arabian centuries after the eclipse of Averroism.

The form this fundamentalism takes is that of a restoration of the strictures of a long-dead past, the past of the first century of the Caliphate, and a complete rejection of Modernity.  Wahhabism as it has been translated into the current context means the impossibility of what in Arabic is called bida, innovation, asphyxiating any possibility of progressive change for humanistic values in the Arab-Muslim world. 

The fundamentalist Wahhabites, according to Meddeb, have installed a new cult of death within the Islamic body:

In this insane, absolute theocentrism, never before in the history of Islam so radically developed, the world is transformed into a cemetery.  If Mawdudi reproached the West with the death of God, we can accuse him of having inaugurated the death of humanity.  His outrageous system invents an unreal totalitarianism, which excites disciples and incites them to spread death and destruction over all continents.  That is a kind of negation of life, the nihilism to which theoretical reasoning leads when it is not subject to the control of practical reasoning. 

Meddeb thus rants and raves about the destructive and debilitating impact of this phenomenon in this most powerful and energizing book; a book that serves as a new and engaged model for those who have tried to adopt reformist positions in the Arab context while continuing to reject the neo-Conservatism of scholars such as Lewis and Pipes.
 
Meddeb bemoans the loss of culture and aesthetic and intellectual values in the Arab-Muslim world in the wake of this fundamentalism.  This is how he puts it:

Now, though, the tradition that reveres the body seems to be disappearing from those Islamic lands ravaged by the moral order that the semiliterate, sick with resentment, impose.  Cairo and Egypt have been transformed from paradise into hell; to be convinced of this, it is enough to see the bodies of livid women, suffering from the heat, burdened by their scarves or their black veils (a color that absorbs the sunҒs heat, in a country where the sun is the tyrant of the day)  Such an aesthetic loss stems from the way bodies are mistreated: They are no longer surrounded by the care that the cult of beauty, one of the attributes of ancient Islam, requires.  For the body to blossom, it must move in an architectural space, metaphor for geometric and musical harmony, as much in relation to concord as to dissonance.

The Malady of Islam is a timely and brilliant book that serves to elucidate in a readable fashion many of the points that have been made in a much more academic and analytical manner by Mohammed őAbed al-Jabri a few years back, making The Malady of Islam a book that serves the average reader as a seminal introduction to the study of Modern Islam understood against the backdrop of classical Arab civilization.

Abdelwahhab Meddeb, a prominent francophone Arab novelist, has overturned many of the Orientalist canards and stereotypes that have polluted the current state of the discourse after September 11.  So much of what we currently read is but a lifelessly arid attempt by Bernard Lewis and Edward Said to rehash their 30 year-old debate; a debate which does little to add to our understanding of the salient phenomena that plagues the current status quo. 

Lewis has produced a couple of generic pieces of Orientalist tripe in books that adorn the New York Times bestseller list and are totally in keeping with his voluminous but utterly misinformed output since the 1960s.  Said has, in his own essays and through the polemics of his many followers, sought to counter Lewis and his buddies in the US government, though he has avoided examining the real causes and reasons for what has happened in the Arab world in this new century.

As we have seen earlier, Edward Said has devoted a good deal of his time and energy to explicate the manner in which the West has treated Islam and the Arabs.  He has not articulated in detail the internal movements and mechanisms that have taken over the Arab world itself.  This has led to a certain amount of distortion and imbalance in his writings on the fundamentalist phenomenon and its subsequent embodiment in the attacks by Bin Laden on the US and the new aspects of religious violence that now hold the Arab world in its nefarious vise.

Abdelwahhab Meddeb has done a great service to those of us who continue to struggle with the intersection of religion and modernity and has done it in high style and with great discipline and integrity.  The story he tells in this magnificent volume is one that all of us Җ Westerner and Arab alike must read.

The life and death nature of the struggle is made more rational and less viscerally emotional by the dispassionate and intelligent examinations of The Malady of Islam.  It is a book that is mandatory reading for anyone that seeks to understand the very volatile world that now surrounds us.

 

David Shasha


Google